I use the two words, generosity and gratitude purposely, because those two words were the focus of a recent blog I read by my friend, Parker Palmer. I have known Palmer for a long time, although we are not close friends. He has had an outstanding career as a teacher and speaker at major events---particularly in the educational and non-profit worlds. I once tried to lure him to the faculty when I was Dean. He was smart enough to tell me no!
One of the things I like to read with some regularity is Krista Tippet’s “On Being.” She routinely has people like Palmer offer short, pithy blogs. They are the kind of thought provoking pieces that I like to encounter. In some ways these kinds of things are soul food to me. Sometimes they are so good, I want to share them further. So it is here with Parker Palmer’s piece.
Palmer begins by saying, “Generosity does not require material abundance.” That is very true. He goes a little further to note that money does not come to mind when he thinks about people who have been generous to him. The same would be true for me. He rightly observes, “Instead, I think of the way they gave me their presence, their confidence, their affirmation, support, and blessing…” I like the way he puts it and, especially, the detail of his sentence.
For a long time, the idea of “presence” has been important to me. Perhaps, some of that has to do with my own Quaker tradition. Palmer shares that tradition. Presence is a key way Quakers talk about God’s availability in our world. I also like the idea of presence when I think about its opposite: absence. And the really good thing about both presence and absence is the fact they are different than non-existence.
I like the distinction between absence and non-existence. When I learned this distinction, I realized there simply are times that God is absent from my experience. That does not mean God does not exist. This lessens the anxiety. If God does not exist, that is a problem that cannot be solved. If God simply is absent from my experience, then that is a problem that can be addressed and solved. Of course, I can’t make God show up and be present. But that is exactly what God wants to do. So usually when I am experiencing God’s absence, it is my fault and not God’s.
I often find God’s presence in and through other people. This leads to the generosity about which Palmer speaks. And with that presence often comes those other gifts Palmer identifies. Their presence exudes a confidence. That confidence can embolden me and enable me to be more confident in myself and my offering to my own world.
The generosity of others can be very affirming. Their affirmation of me makes life good. Along with that usually comes support. To have support in life is desired by everyone I know. And this is a key role for any spiritual community. A community is a support system that makes life a joy when times are good and is an incredible solace when times are tough. I don’t know what I would do without my own support system.
With all this comes blessings. I have to laugh when I think that most people talk about blessing only when someone sneezes. What a paltry limitation of a huge gift of generosity. When was the last time you had someone offer you blessing? It seldom happens to me and, in some ways, I am in the business where you might think it would happen. I try to offer and express blessing in all sorts of places to all sorts of people. I even offer blessings to those I know are atheists. I figure they can receive it on any terms they want!
From generosity Palmer goes to gratitude. He asks, “And where does generosity come from?” He offers this answer to his own question: “Perhaps from another life-giving virtue, the one called gratitude.” In a word gratitude is “thanks.” It is thanks for any gift that is given. Gratitude is our expression of our experience of having been gifted. The gift cannot be earned nor can it be coerced.
A gift is grace. That is why in Spanish the response is “graciás.” Every time we are given generosity, we should be thankful. Generosity is getting more than we deserve and, maybe even, in spite of what we deserve. I know all-too-well that I have been dealt with in generous ways. It is not luck; it is more than that.
Generosity comes from the hands of people---friends and, sometimes, strangers. Generosity comes from the goodness of the Holy One. I know no other response than to be grateful. And I appreciate my friend Parker Palmer leading me to ponder these twin spiritual themes. Often I have been the recipient. I want to keep growing in my capacity to be generous to others.