Alchemy for beginners

Photo credit: Chris Fort

Photo credit: Chris Fort

For the last few weeks I’ve been trying to write a book about generosity.

It was probably predictable that this would bring my own less generous moments into wincingly sharp focus. Since starting, I’ve caught myself suggesting that we reduce a monthly gift to charity, that we turn down a slightly inconvenient request for a favour, and that my closest family members go away and leave me alone so I can concentrate on writing about kindness and inclusiveness. 

Despite the fact that I admire rather than exemplify it, I have been drawn to the subject for a long time and the more I study it, the more convinced I am that the practice of generosity has got to be a solution to some of the most difficult issues we face. 

Admittedly, being generous with our time, attitudes, bank accounts and affections was always going to be a good thing. 

It’s not rocket science: but it might just be alchemy.

Generosity has the power to cut straight to the heart of a situation and change it when reason and argument and eloquence fail. It lowers defences, bridges gulfs, deepens trust, heightens connection, and makes the other a friend. It can take the base metal of self-centredness and transform it into something unexpectedly, ridiculously good – often magically much greater than the sum of its parts. 

On a simple level, there is the generosity that responds with provision to a perceived need. Someone spots a lack and is moved to fill it. This can often be beautiful to witness, like the person who gave their umbrella to a homeless person sitting on a pavement and walked on through the driving rain. One person realises they are seen; the other realises there is much more to see outside the confines of their own experience, and their gaze lifts and extends.

When generosity grows to become a significant part of a person’s character, everyone benefits. I know how much I value those friends who love lavishly and don’t count the cost, whose homes are open and whose kindness is contagious. I have the privilege of living next door to someone like this, and my family – in fact, our whole community – are blessed, and in turn breathe a bit more freely and share a bit more readily and rise a little higher to match the kindness standard she has set.

But in some unexpected situations, generosity can floor us. 

In the fevered and fearful atmosphere that has followed the killing of an unimaginably high number of black US citizens by the police, division and distrust seem to have opened up chasms in communities. 

Against this backdrop, a black mother of two recently saw a white police officer in a city park. She stopped her car, got out with both her children and approached the police officer – to ask if she could pray for him and for his safety. 

Unwarranted, courageous and extravagant generosity has the raw force to right wrongs and reverse vicious circles.

There’s a joy in generosity, an unrestrained, feisty, fighting response to life’s pain. It has, in the writer Marilynne Robinson’s words, ‘a grand laughter’ in it.

This makes me think of the day a few weeks ago when my friend Jenny and I met in a London cafe and resumed our conversation from where we’d last left it, months before. We talked, as parents of teenagers, about boundaries and expectations. She asked wryly, with raised eyebrow, what I used to get up to as a 15-year-old. The answer – ‘handbell-ringing’ – was met with one of the best and most brilliant laughs I have ever witnessed. Joy coursed out of her, along with tears, wave after wave as the people sitting next to us shifted uncomfortably in their seats and the traffic inched along outside and I knew I was witnessing something I would not forget. 

There are many facets to generosity I want to explore, but I know that one of the chapters will look at generosity in friendship, and I will write about Jenny. About friendship that weathers storms and provides shelter in them, that gives you a place to belong, that tells you that you are loved on this earth.

In the scheme of things, life is short. Let’s allow generosity to make it sweet.




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