Being generous

Following up on my post on practicing gratitude, another practice I’ve been working on is being generous, both to others and to myself. Like with gratitude, part of the reason I want to work on this practice is to change how I see the world.

When we are confronted with somebody who is arguing with us or impeding our progress, our first thought is generally to blame them for being our opponent. We resent them for not agreeing with us, for not seeing things our way, and for keeping us from getting what we want. Can’t they see we’re having a bad day and doing the best we can? Can’t they just ease up on us in this one interaction?

Of course, they’re probably thinking the same thing about us. And this is where I feel it’s important to practice generosity, including:

  • generosity of interpretation: assume they are doing the best they can – maybe they are having a bad day
  • generosity of spirit: imagine what may have caused their behavior and put myself in their situation
  • generosity of action: how can I make their day a little better?

I was inspired in part by David Cain’s post on being a “secret ally”:

If you live among strangers, chances are you are constantly becoming a private adversary to other people in ways you could never comprehend. Maybe somebody at the grocery store secretly hates you because of where you lock your bike up, or because you ride a bike at all. … When you think of all of the petty things for which you’ve privately condemned someone at one time or another, it’s no stretch at all to imagine how often you are, in someone else’s eyes, clearly a bad person. … So part of my recovery is this new habit of becoming a secret ally to a given stranger the moment I notice I’m tempted to become his secret enemy.”

This practice is still a work in progress for me, but there are a few benefits I’ve observed:

  • It places the locus of control back onto me. If they are doing the best they can, then it’s up to me to change the situation if I want change to happen.
  • It makes me feel better about people and myself. Instead of being frustrated by all the “idiots” in the world, I empathize with their struggles to get through the day. As the character Raylan Givens put it on the show Justified: “If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.” Practicing generosity helps me to not be the asshole.
  • Assuming the best of people becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy or virtual circle – when I am sympathetic and supportive and generous, those around me are more likely to relax into being positive and optimistic, which makes it easier to see the best in them. So by adopting the practice of generosity, I can help nudge the people around me to be more pleasant and optimistic, which makes the world seem like a better place.

Sounds like a pretty great world to live in, right? And one that I can help to create by changing how I act and react to those around me.

To forestall objections, there are assholes in the world who will take advantage of generosity, and who will never behave well no matter how nicely they are treated. I’ve struggled with how to deal with such people – how can I stay in that place of generosity when I’m being taken advantage of?

Brene Brown, in her book Rising Strong, provided a framework for how to handle that – she calls it living BIG, with Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity. Without Boundaries and Integrity, being Generous will lead to others taking advantage of you. So the key is to have firm and clear boundaries of what is acceptable behavior – when people cross those boundaries, they no longer deserve generosity, and it is acting with integrity to exclude them from your life. Within one’s boundaries, one can live with generosity, but integrity also demands that the other person has to opt in to live within those boundaries as well. I’m still figuring out how to set and express appropriate boundaries for generosity, but some initial experiments along those lines have been positive.

Another ongoing challenge for me is to be as generous to myself as I am attempting to be to others. With friends, I am enthusiastic and supportive and cheer them on and believe they can do anything (e.g. my friend Jess did her first Death Ride this weekend!). And yet when I get stuck or am less than perfect, I immediately beat myself up for being a loser and a failure. So part of my practice of generosity is learning to be forgiving of myself – sometimes I am doing the best I can in a given moment, even it’s not “good enough” or not where I want to be, and that’s okay. I have been trying to notice those moments recently where I get stuck in a spiral of frustration – when I do, I stop, take a few deep breaths, and say to myself “You are enough.” And, surprisingly, that helps.

I really like the practice of generosity, and the idea of trying to be a “secret ally” to those around me, believing they are doing the best they can, and trying to make their day a little better. I believe it makes me a more optimistic person, and it makes the world around me more pleasant. I’d love to get your thoughts on this – does this make sense? Am I spiraling into hippy-dippy California thinking?

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