I haven’t written a new post in a long time – seven months, though to be honest, it seems like even longer. So long that I kind of forget how to use the interface of my host website. I’ve been busy, I suppose (haven’t we all?); I’ve been frustrated, down in the dumps, elated, exhausted, well-rested, depending on the day. Haven’t we all? I had post ideas that quickly receded as the news coverage shifted: Notre Dame as an emblem of impermanence (I may write that yet, but also, duh); on the beauty of dating yourself, even when you have a partner (not sure that one shouldn’t be consigned to the recycle bin forever).
But today, in the middle of another busy Monday, in a quiet pause between meetings, I find that I do want to say a wee something, at least as a placeholder, about generosity, the nuances of which knit communities together, and the absence of which can very easily erode them, or (if I’m to stick with the knitting metaphor)…unravel them, tear holes in them, and so on.
Before I say a bunch of things about this abstract noun, though, it seems like it might be a good idea to define it, conceptual rather than dictionary style.
Generosity. A word generally, I think, associated with material goods, and with time (also seen as a good, and in our culture, imbricated with money, as in “time is money” just for starters).
But it’s also, I hope, a word that brings empathy to mind, and a cluster of related concepts: giving the benefit of the doubt; kindness; a certain divesting of our default-mode assumptions (Those who choose to drive expensive luxury cars are bad! Ahem, for example).
All of these things require one other expansive concept: pausing. This idea itself has been coopted by the corporate world, to some extent, in the idea that it’s better to respond (which requires waiting a beat, which requires pausing) than react.
But just because the corporate world occasionally gets it right doesn’t mean they have trademarked a concept, or that we should cede “it” to them (and their twisty language, good grief, and no I will not be generous on that front!). Not when pausing is so important; not when moving through the world too quickly makes it so difficult to be generous. Not given the necessity of taking time (there is that word again) to imagine the worldview of someone who is not me.
Because the pause is where we can admit of someone else’s humanity; the pause is everything.
The pause, whatever I use it for – to take a breath, to remember that I’m so cranky today, to think, ‘I have worth, here; may I be happy; how do I want to respond?’ – gets me to a place of generosity, even when the person I am being generous to is myself.
The pause is the thing that can be difficult to find when your heart is racing and you feel cornered. The pause is the thing I can choose to remember at the beginning of the day, as a kind of intention: may I remember to pause.
The idea of generosity has for too long has been weaponized by those in power to retain it, as Kate Manne so artfully demonstrates; “himpathy” is a real thing. The pause enacted for those who already have power – judgment rendered far too quickly for those who do not. And who is worthy of our generosity often amounts to: those who are like me (and, in our patriarchal and racist culture, the universal “me” is an Everyman whose perspective is white, the only race that is not-race, on which see Robin D’Angelo). Be generous to the perpetrator; blame the victim; if I like it so should you; if it doesn’t bother me but does you, you are deficient in some way; lighten up; get a life; and so on.
This version of empathy – in which it is commanded only by the powerful few – has held sway for so long because we imagine the white male perspective to be the universal one. What is important here, in this blog post, is that – at least I think so – we all also tend to imagine our own individual perspectives as universal, insofar as we imagine they should apply to everyone else (even when we are able, intellectually, to see that this isn’t the case).
What am I saying? That what yokes us together is partly our insistence that we are special, and also our insistence that this specialness in fact defines what other people should experience, too. That recognizing this pattern might help us to be more generous. That where I sit on the hierarchy of privilege inevitably affects how I talk about experience; I have had very tall white men say that they have never experienced gender discrimination, let’s say, and that therefore it doesn’t exist. (Somehow the tallness is relevant to me, a Short Person. lol.) I have no doubt made similarly unfeeling comments to people of color.
Generosity requires that, living as we do inside one skin suit until we die, we pause, occasionally anyway, to ask whether what we experience is really the same as everyone else; and if we think it must be, to ask – but how can we know? To say – I am lucky enough to be good at some things, and to have a lot of privilege.
Why would I assume or want everyone else to be the same?
**The image is a picture I took in San Francisco; I’m posting it here because it’s beautiful, the street art, not my pic of it.