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The Art of Right Living
By John Dalla Costa
Copyright © 2008 John Dalla Costa
All right reserved.
“May I speak to you?” asked the man politely. I was the conspicuous Westerner in a mid-sized city in Japan, far off the usual tourist track. He wanted to practise his English. I said yes, of course, bowing slightly to him. Without being overt about it, my middle-aged interlocutor eventually got around to wondering why I was there–in that park, in that city, on a Sunday. His English was not developed enough for me to explain that I was going through what my bemused friends called a mid-life crisis, but what I considered a journey of self-discovery. I was without work and without plans, having left my job to look for something true, or more truly me. Visiting Japan was therefore both a break and a breaking free. I did not talk to the man about my faith as a Catholic, nor did I presume to explain this trip as existential restlessness. Yet through our fairly monosyllabic exchange, he came to sense my situation. Before leaving me to allow us to continue going our separate ways, this Japanese gentleman unrolled his Buddhist prayer beads from his wrist, and offered them to me. Touched by this gesture, I knew enough about the culture, with its risks of losing face, to accept. And before I couldreact or figure out how to reciprocate, he had gone.
On the bus back to my hotel, I held this gift in my hand and pondered the meaning of what had happened. His was an act of gracious courtesy and hospitality, an outreach of welcome to a stranger. Such simple, unexpected kindness had bridged a huge cultural divide, connecting us, despite depths of unfamiliarity, in the sunshine on a warm summer’s day. Having grown up in a household with rosary beads, I knew that what I had received was also special on another level. Devotion beads are imbued with historical and theological symbolism, giving them a transcendent value. Yet they are also highly personal, almost intimate instruments of piety, which accrue a considerable patina of joy, sorrow and faith in repeatedly passing through one’s fingers over days, months and frequently years of prayer. I was moved because I was seen, not merely recognized. By receiving these beads I felt a bit less lost, while still being out of place. And I carried away not only a reminder of that moment, but also a part of the giver. Most Westerners call these “worry beads.” I eventually came to appreciate them as “why worry?” beads. And one year before I met my wife, and thirteen years before we began this book, I placed these beads on my prayer altar at home as a reminder of small generosities that can have unfathomable consequences.
Being generous, we have learned in our work as writers and as a married couple, is elemental to humanity. Across diverse cultures and beliefs, and despite many differences throughout history, the practice of generosity is universally revered as one of the highest qualities of the human heart. The good Samaritan is an archetypical model most people recognize, not only for going out of his way to take care of someone in need, but also for revealing, through kindness, what is familiar and deeply human about those who are otherwise regarded as strangers. As well as a mark of personal character, generosity is also an attribute of what people mean by civil society or civilization. Some of the most prestigious institutions of community–public schools, libraries, hospitals and universities–were founded and moulded in the restive generosity of committed volunteers or sponsoring philanthropists. Although generosity may well involve being charitable, not all charity qualifies as such. That is because, beyond the impulse of pity or sympathy, generous actions almost always undo disadvantage or hardship and contribute healing, thereby making possible a more humane future. An investment in positive change, the practice of generosity usually provides a spark of hope by which people themselves are transformed, enabled and revivified.
This book examines the joyful riches of generosity we, as its authors, have discovered to be personally fulfilling. Writing together (co-authoring as a married couple) has been a sort of litmus test for both the premise and the joys of what we call the art of right living, one we have embraced and held central in our lives. Each of us, in our own way, learned about being generous by osmosis. Our parents, while from quite contrasting cultures and in markedly different circumstances, exemplified daily attitudes and actions that, in hindsight, we have recognized as intrinsically generous. In southern England, one father and mother managed to balance making a living as artists while giving considerable time to the needs and creativity of their five children. No matter what the external or professional pressures, the priority at home was for expressions of kindness–inviting discussion, relishing the sharing of ideas and supporting inspiration. Small requests were accorded respectful attention: the mending of broken toys, wristwatches and torn clothes; helping with homework; and being the patient audience for endless music recitals and comedy skits. In smalltown Canada, another father and mother confronted the hardships of settling in a foreign land while offering shelter, home-cooked meals and even sock darning to other new immigrants. Labouring long hours to make a living, they still made time within this exhausting cycle of work to ensure that the children would find opportunities that they, as parents, had never had. Humble luxuries, like television and telephone, were readily shared with neighbours who were without.
So we two grew up in households in which generosity was not an exceptional attribute but an ordinary, everyday constant. It was part of the equation for learning life’s lessons, for dealing with conflicts and misunderstandings, and for nurturing creative gifts in ourselves as well as others. And it overflowed as an invisible assumption, permeating the interactions between family members while also conditioning the way we reached out to the world and others in the community. This default spirit of generosity was certainly shaped by similar religious backgrounds. With Italian and Irish Catholic roots, we grew up with the stories and doctrines that affirmed self-sacrifice in the service of others, or for a good and right cause. Like almost all of the world’s major religions, Catholicism preaches charity, compassion and responsibility for community. However, being Catholic did not make us more generous. Our cultural formation in generosity was from the living examples of others. Certainly the spiritual insights and inspirations we encountered growing up as Christians provided an impetus towards generosity. However, it wasn’t doctrine or moral laws that provoked us in this direction as much as deep personal longing, from what we experienced and what we therefore knew to be possible.
With the confidence gained from the generosity of our parents, we each went our own way, aspiring to make a creative impact on the world. Since we took our sense of generosity for granted, we matured into adulthood seeking relationships and friendships of consideration, civility and gentleness. In hardscrabble careers, we each pursued success and ambition, sometimes to excess, yet never losing hope for either personal situations or social development of more fairness, understanding and opportunity. And, later, as writers, we each gravitated to optimistic projects and inclusive themes, using language to undertake that respectful, participative exchange between text and reader. We persisted alone, on our own, with day-to-day duties, while dreaming of collaborating with others in projects of shared purpose and significance. And through all the bumps and grinds of work and busyness, we ached, each in our respective way, for beauty in our human reality, and for respite and renewal in the splendour of nature.
All this circling around generosity occurred before our first date. On meeting each other we felt an immediate sense of belonging, speaking honestly and openly with an easy intimacy that we later came to realize was possible because of our shared predisposition. Generosity was something valued in our souls, and while both of us appreciated its worth and had learned its vocabulary, neither of us, sadly, had found it in past relationships. As we began to give words to our mutual attraction, and define our hopes as a couple, generosity became the prism for our relationship, and subsequently our marriage. We committed–humbly and imperfectly–to making generosity the value infiltrating all our other values, a part of our daily living with one another, family, work and community. Over the years, we have used generosity as a filter for what has happened to us, while committing to it as an everyday practice. With time, trials, tests and triumphs, we have come to formulate some basic principles and methods for what we believe is the art of right living, of doing the right thing through generosity of spirit and of self. In this book we give shape to what we have learned.
Generosity–as the word itself connotes–is about not only giving but also generating. It is a creative act rather than a handout, an attitude or ethos rather than an exchange between someone who has too much and someone who has too little. Even when pursuing other objectives, or coming from other motivations, generosity is often at the heart of what brings peace and real selfworth. Various studies among people who buy lottery tickets indicate quite clearly that the dream of winning is actually for the “double reward,” for the opportunity to share the benefits in special ways that make a difference to family or friends. Having volunteered in prisons, women’s shelters and hospitals, we found that people like us who started out wanting to do something positive came to learn that we, the supposed dispensers of generosity, were in fact the recipients of reams of joy, insight and satisfaction. These experiences are signifiers for the truth about generosity, which is that it is part of what constitutes human beings as social creatures, and part of what fulfills aspirations, possibilities and innate creativity. In virtually all relationships, but especially in friendship, partnership and marriage, generosity is the expansive quality energizing hope and happiness. As such, generosity is not really optional. Nor can it be occasional. Rather, it works its uplifting magic only when it becomes a central characteristic and ordering principle in one’s everyday life.
Generosity is not someone else’s project to piggyback upon. It is not a spectator sport to cheer on from the sidelines. It is a personal choice about what to do, yet, more importantly, also about who to be in relating to another human being or circumstance. The responsibilities and pleasures of generosity pivot on this evolution from wanting to do the generous thing to wanting to become a generous person. This is why we have called this introduction an invitation–as a request rather than recommendation, as an opening to participation rather than as a “to-do” list. When generosity is embraced as a pillar of identity and as an attribute of personal integrity, it becomes an internal truth for constructing one’s life. It is thus a source of purpose and a reservoir for meaning, which, perhaps, is the reason generosity is so common to so many religions, yet equally compelling without any religion at all. Generosity can have ramifications well beyond conventional expectations or rational beliefs. But whether its impacts are large or small, the practice of generosity reveals something inviolable about human reality. Living and acting generously certainly impacts others, but the most transformed is the practitioner of generosity, for by being generous one becomes generous. This again is the art itself, the ebb that fills and renews, and the flow that pours forth one’s gifts into the waiting, needful, ever-regenerating world.
Many of society’s magnanimous transformations have come about because of courageous acts of generosity by individuals who could not accept injustice or inhumanity. Personal choices, whether for compassion, resistance or forgiveness, became inducements for far-reaching social change. This is what happened when Nelson Mandela opted for reconciliation with his apartheid oppressors after years of inhuman imprisonment. This is what Dorothy Day exemplified when, in solidarity with displaced workers during the Depression, she opened her modest home to give rooms and emotional shelter to prostitutes working the cold, hard streets. This was the dream of equality and opportunity that Martin Luther King Jr. preached and lived despite the demeaning burdens of racial prejudice he had borne his whole life. Most people may never be heroic reformers on this scale. Yet in every life there are moments or situations in which injustice challenges the individual with many of the same sensibilities of what is human and right, with much the same potential for contributing change in the world.
Generosity is generative–generating change, generating opportunity, generating transformations. Conversely, most intractable problems to be faced today can be seen as involving the opposite, that is, degeneration–the disorder, conflict and breakdown that so often traumatize relationships, fissure communities and spark conflict. Whether it is in the clash of civilizations, or disagreements between religions, or political fighting between ideologies, constructive dialogue is impossible without some generous opening to the other who is different from one’s self.
The degeneration so painfully present in global or social realities also plays its fracturing part in our personal lives. As is often the case with family strife, differences impose divisions even with people who are loved. Fears incite isolation, especially from people who are alien or far removed, which is the reason simple antipathy or “crossfire” is preferred over conversation. Generosity, as an exercise of inclusiveness, can help bridge misunderstandings or alienation, and create connections despite disagreements. Making a common human home, personally as well as within the community, is not only a right but also a responsibility. With a generous attitude the interdependencies become more apparent and of higher priority than the disconnections. To listen to another is to be generous. To be open to others’ beliefs and aspirations is to accord them the generosity of validating their lives’ experience and desires. To stand with others in distress or suffering is to provide hope for some regeneration. Conflicts are not denied. Differences are not papered over. Anguish and anger are not trivialized. Generosity does not yield instant peace, harmony and tranquility. But it does keep problems from having the last word.
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Being Generous by John Dalla Costa Copyright © 2008 by John Dalla Costa. Excerpted by permission.
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