My father, the Dreaded Unit, was not a generous person. He gave us things, he provided a nice lifestyle for the family, he didn’t begrudge us what we needed or wanted, he just was not personally generous. It seems easy enough to blame this on the “grinding poverty” he experienced until he was drafted into the Army. Though the most generous kids I ever worked with were always the poorest. My sister’s experience working with children has been the same. We both, at different times and in different places, taught classes of well-to-do kids and classes of poor kids. Certain rich kids were prone to grabbing the last cookie and shoving it into their mouth. Poor kids always seem concerned that everyone gets a fair piece. Of course, I over-generalize, there were wonderful rich kids and poor kids who were complete dicks. When it came to sharing, and my sister will back me up, the poor kids unfailingly shared, rich kids not such unfailing sharers. So my father’s poverty by itself does not explain his difficulty being generous.
Generosity is a trait, like kindness and fairness, that if not planted young has a hard time growing later in the depleted soil of a love-starved soul. My father told me as he was dying, in that weakened voice as his life force ebbed, that he’d had never had any idea how to show affection. “I’d never seen it done,” he told me, a slight pleading in his tone, alluding to the house of violence, poverty and madness he’d grown up in. His mother and father never touched each other. No affection was ever shown.
These days I am trying to learn each of the lessons of my father’s tragic life and put them into practice to live a better life. Being unforgiving is closely related to a lack of generosity — you will not extend the pardon you yourself would want to be given in the same situation. It is a terrible thing never to forgive. I watched my father do it all his life, the man never forgave anyone, starting with himself. Unforgiveness feeds a deeply destructive need, the need to feel completely vindicated in one’s anger. We see it played out on a mass level today with our vengeful Insane Clown President, as Matt Taibbi dubbed him when writing about the 2016 campaign.
I am always impressed by generosity. I recall going to the home of a Palestinian who lived in East Jerusalem, in the Old City. He took everything out of his refrigerator, he and his children literally emptied it, and put it all on the table in front of us. “Take, take,” he said, smiling, gesturing at everything. There turned out to be more to the story, but this kind of generosity, holding nothing back, is a beautiful thing.
What does it cost to be moved by something beautiful somebody has just done and saying “beautiful”? The thing is beautiful, is there a price to saying so? I don’t know, I can’t see one. To some people, I suppose, it costs a lot. It appears that way, anyway. Maybe it’s related to envy, or distraction, or simply being bitter, I don’t really have a handle on that kind of reticence. My mother didn’t have it. She would read something I’d picked out for her and smile and say “it’s wonderful”. I could tell she meant it. My father would read the same piece looking for the fatal booby trap I’d hidden in there, the tell-tale adjective that would show the rigging about to collapse on his head.
What does it cost to give the benefit of the doubt? You can give it once, be disappointed, give it again, remaining hopeful. After enough disappointments you will stop extending this generous courtesy, but what does it cost to give it in the first place? It requires trust, I suppose, a certain faith that good will is going to be returned. It often is. It often isn’t. I think more often than not, good will is reciprocated. My father did not think so. It was hard for him to make himself vulnerable in any way.
As he was dying he said:
I know a lot of people are sorry for what they did, yet at the time you don’t see anything but just a battle which there has to been winners or losers, and there’s no gradation.
I know when we had our differences, I realize that it was nothing personal in the classic sense but I also know that it’s the only way that I could live… like I told mom, we always had these battles where she’s saying “we’ve got enough money, we’ve got enough money” — for me it was never enough. I’ve got to make sure that every dot is dotted, every ‘t’ is crossed because I don’t want her to want a thing. So, it’s kind of a lifetime battle, I don’t know, I think now how much richer my life would have been if I hadn’t seen it as a battle—good versus evil.
I know we should have had this talk ten, fifteen years ago. I couldn’t reach that level because I was really thinking that it was going to be a battle and that there wasn’t any way I could make it into a dialogue, and that’s my fault. You’re supposed to have some fucking insight.