Over the past week the world conspired to teach the value of generosity, especially the usefulness of generosity in helping us overcome the bitterness of self-focus and complaint. As a literature major Mrs. Gummidge in David Copperfield lingers in the back of my mind. She always had much to criticize and certainly did not think the world had done right by her. She was not a happy woman. Once someone in her household faced serious trouble, Mrs. Gummidge emerged from her self-pity to offer herself to others. One might think this was harder work than thinking about oneself, but it was instead the beginning of a life of joy and fulfillment.
How easy it is to notice what we miss and to turn to self-pity or seek out what we want which we think will make us happier. We complain, whine or pout. Times are hard now, and, at a minimum, we all face near constant change if not job loss, illness and worse. Still, as I learned some decades back from Dickens, focusing on my life and where it falls short does not make me happy. Noticing someone else’s needs and troubles, and stepping up to offer a listening ear or practical assistance plants the seeds of joy.
We celebrated St. Nicholas Day on Sunday, and our Bishop reminded us Nicholas’s parents died in an epidemic when he was young. He inherited wealth, but it could not have easy without his parents. Nicholas did not rely on wealth to make him happy, but instead he noticed those around him who had less and dedicated his life to helping others.
In case I did not get the message about generosity and self-giving, last week I read an interview with Melinda Gates. Here is a woman with vast wealth. One might think the wealth is the key to her happiness. It turns out that being able to help others with her money, time and compassion is the source of her fulfillment. She continues to live by Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of success:
to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch Or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded!”
Suffering is all around us in the form of a pandemic, hunger, homelessness, job loss, war and more. Some suffering directly affects our lives; from some we feel a distance. Once we recognize that we all are connected together, and that each one’s suffering is our own, we can begin to live our lives in self-giving and generosity. This is an excellent response to suffering and personal unhappiness.
One last plug for re-focusing on helping others rather than complaining about ourselves. Sit for a moment and notice how one feels reading of someone’s generosity and how one feels hearing someone complain. Choose generosity and your heart will sing.
With every blessing for a holy and generous Advent,