My sister Bonnie and I are only one year apart but she was much taller than I was for most of our childhood. Her size and stature as the eldest sibling meant that I followed her lead in most things. I wanted to go to kindergarten because Bonnie went to kindergarten. I wanted to read books because Bonnie read books. She protected me from neighborhood bullies and gave me tissues for my runny nose. Observing Bonnie and copying how she did things is how I faced most childhood challenges.
At times I resisted her directives. We’d fight, but eventually I’d give in to her way because I was no match for her superior powers of argumentation. A good example of this was the piggy bank incident.
We were both given plastic piggy banks. I was a more diligent saver than Bonnie, so I accumulated an enviable amount of change. One day Bonnie said, “Jerry, if we take all the money in your piggy bank and put it in my piggy bank, we’ll have a lot more money!” Dazzled by her logic, I spent an entire morning using a butter knife to extract the coins from my piggy bank; coins which Bonnie immediately deposited into her bank. How excited I was to shake Bonnie’s piggy bank, to feel its massive weight and hear the deep, full-bodied resonance of our combined fortunes.
Days later, when I encountered the soulless shell of what was my piggy bank and realized I had no money, I became outraged and went to Bonnie demanding my money back. But I was too late. She had already spent the entire sum on a ceramic ash tray – a gift for our dear mother for Mother’s Day. Bonnie was shrewd, but she was also generous. Giving, not taking, was her ultimate goal. Weeks before she had noticed the ash tray in the window of a beauty parlor near our house and devised her plan to procure it. That plan happened to require the contents of my piggy bank.
As Bonnie explained to me her motives, I was bewildered. This was the first time it occurred to me that I could or should do anything sacrificial for my mother, who was there, it seemed to me, to do things for me. But it wasn’t the first time this idea occurred to Bonnie. She was always thinking about others with kindness. True, she tricked me out of my savings, but Bonnie was a noble trickster. I marvel now at how considerate a person she was at age six. How fortunate I was to have her example, then and now, for how to live generously in the world.
Growing up with Bonnie taught me to be suspicious of my initial reactions, because they often misled me about the higher benefits of a situation. I wanted to stay mad at Bonnie for filching my cash, but I couldn’t hold a grudge when I saw how touched my mother was with her present. “It’s from me and Jerry,” Bonnie was quick to explain. Nope, I couldn’t stay mad at Bonnie.
Living generously in the world is a fruit of the well examined life. It’s a life lived deliberately in service of others: offering gifts instead of demanding payment. In our society of conspicuous consumption, it would be normal to approach daily interactions with a consumer mentality. But we are here to contribute something as well, which, in my mind, involves living generously like Bonnie.
Living generously is difficult in a world where it seems our anger is provoked daily. We’re angry when we don’t beat the red light and we’re angry when people don’t love us the way we long to be loved. A particular brand of white hot anger is reserved for political discourse informed by the idea that some other person or group is taking something away that is rightfully mine. In politics, kindness is often regarded as weakness.
How does one live generously in this kind of world? The noted psychologist Carl Jung said, “The will to power and the will to love are mutually exclusive; when one is present, the other is absent.” Generosity thrives where there is the will to love. As long as we value love over power, we pursue the generous path. To pursue power over love is to declare cynicism the victor.
The ceramic ash tray Bonnie purchased was not technically beautiful, but it originated from her will to love and that made it valuable as gold. If we interact with this spirit instead of a competitive, self-serving one, it’s quite possible an agreeable sweetness will enter our inner lives, as our anger becomes useless and then vanishes.
When we meet others’ vulnerability with warmth, meaningful moments of connection can occur. We see with greater clarity how our initial impulse to maneuver for our own advantage or defense can lead us away from meaningful experience. Life changes when we trust the will to love. Or rather, we change. We form a new relationship with life – life as it is – to which we can say, even in hard times, “I can’t stay mad at you.”