Give It All Away! — A Personal Lesson in Generosity

“Give it all away, Forrest! Don’t hold back, just give it away!” John, a fellow food vendor, stormed across the crowded food court screaming at the top of his lungs. I felt like a child being publicly admonished. On one level I knew why he was so angry: I had sold the last cup of smoothie from our pushcart just before his son requested a free one in trade for a meal I had gotten earlier from John’s food stand. Apparently his son only told him that I refused to generously offer up a drink.

On a deeper level, however, John had unknowingly struck a raw nerve in my character — I indeed had a notable tendency to hold back, no matter what it might be. I am certain it was a form of self-preservation from growing up in a family of regular emotional and physical abuse, and of meager means. Consequently, I offered less than my full self to others, like conditionally extending one hand with the other held behind the back.

At the end of the business day, I sat in long reflection, caught between the dilemma of familiarly holding back in my life and the unexplored universe of letting go and giving “it” all away, as John challenged me to do. It didn’t matter what IT was — my heart, emotions, thoughtfulness, generosity, money, possessions, whatever — my public humiliation was an opportunity for soul-searching.

My contemplation led to this thought puzzle: Imagine you have a small backpack in which you put anything you desire that will fit. The rest of the things in your life — well, you’re going to generously give them all way. What would be packed, and what would you part with?

This is not an exercise in living simply or how to pack an emergency kit. You’re not going to be abandoned on a remote island, nor judged by what you keep or let go. The only purpose is this: generosity — to know if you are able to unconditionally give all that represents your existence on Earth away — no regrets, no bargaining, whining or complaining, no sadness or heroics, no holding back, no slap on the back.

Sometimes people don’t have the luxury of determining what they will give away. Natural disasters, wars and armed invasions, or simply theft or arson can quickly strip one of possessions, home, village, or a way of life. Sometimes, however, we can consciously relieve ourself of life’s possessions or burdens in order to start anew. I know this because, ironically so, I had done it a half dozen years before John’s public confrontation at my smoothie cart over 28 years ago.

I simply came to a dead-end in my life. In one fell swoop, I let go of everything: my university professorship, a failed marriage, nice house, envious lifestyle, money in the bank, and a circle of friends. My only possessions fit on a bicycle, and I literally rode off into the sunset for several months, voluntarily homeless, light and free. Returning to my hometown, I began recreating my life anew.

I started off simple, but you know how it goes. Little by little, complexity took hold of my life again — a new partner, family, home, garden, land, hobbies, musical instruments, business, and bills. Nowadays a backpack seems too small to run my thought experiment, and my bicycle would need to tow a huge moving van!

However, I have now come to measure my heart not by what I own or value or can keep, but by my generosity — what I am willing to give and offer up unconditionally, be it items, emotions, money or help. Comedian Bob Hope said, If you lack charity of the heart you have the worst form of heart disease. I personally don’t want to be a candidate for such a disease.

When I see the ravaged lives of victims of natural disasters or war, my heart hurts. Suddenly, my little “castle on a hill” at Cortesia Sanctuary feels too conspicuous or luxurious (if that is possible in a 960 square foot cabin!), and I sometimes feel overwhelmed by my modest possessions and desires. Out of compassion for others, I want to give it all away and pick up the remnants.

Giving it all away, however, should never feel like being left with less. A charitable heart is a crazed heart whose every beat is that of compassion. It hears and feels the ills and woes of the world seeping through. It asks for no grace for oneself, but works hard to give grace to others, even if its a simple form of prayer or kind thought.

We are each born with gifts worthy of sharing and freely giving away. It is never a matter of the glass being half full or half empty. In truth, the glass is always full of potential; and that is the feeling of a generous spirit. St. Augustine’s words remind me:

Determine what God has given you, and take from it what you need;
the remainder is needed by others.

My special gifts are to inspire others with my words, music, and reverence for Nature and life. Other than this, I have chosen to live simply so that others may simply live. I know now that old childhood wounds are not meant to constrain me but to open me up to life — to remind me to give my compassion, wisdom, intelligence, joy and love away fully and freely, without conditions.

What are those unconditional gifts life has given you? How have you created a life that enriches others with those gifts?

Remember: To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.

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About C. Forrest McDowell, PhD

I am blessed to be a co-steward for over 30 years of the beautiful 22-acre Cortesia Sanctuary outside Eugene, Oregon, with my partner, Tricia Clark-McDowell. My lifelong interests in wellness care, psychology, nature, music composition & performance, writing, and meditation fuel my celebration for life. My form of service is founded upon the elemental practice of kindness and reverence for life. Of course, to understand the value of deep respect for life, we also have to accept irreverence as part of human nature and to know that it can be very disruptive and destructive to peace, safety, beauty, joy and love.
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