… I remember a story you once told about a miser who fell into a well and who was rescued by someone who said take my hand. It came back to me lately when one of my friends starting teasing me about being stingy. It’s true what he said, but I didn’t think people had noticed. I usually cover it up fairly well. I'm helped a lot by your insights, and I'm wondering if you could say something about this. I hate meanness and stinginess in people and I'm afraid of being a total hypocrite. Thanks Donagh. Gerard
I had better fill in the rest of that story here, for the benefit of anyone else who might read this. People had gathered around the mouth of the well and were reaching down to him, saying, “Give me your hand!” But he was not in the habit of giving anything and couldn’t do it, even to save his life. But there was a person there who understood. He reaching down and said, “Take my hand!” Taking was something the man understood, and so he was hauled to safety. The story shows that there is no difference between giving and receiving – except for a miser, who sees them as opposites.
Our life is a constant give and take. We breathe oxygen, we eat and drink, we are sheltered and protected by others, especially in our tender years. In return we work for the benefit of others, we love our friends and try to love our enemies. We received life from others, so we give life to others. No big deal. It’s like breathing in and out. But stinginess is like a pulmonary disease. It’s not the natural condition. Generosity is the natural condition. By seeing generosity as heroic or exceptional we are suggesting that stinginess is the normal condition. We pat ourselves too much on the back for being generous with our time or our property. Where would we be if people stopped receiving from us? If we woke up one morning to discover that no one needed anything from us anymore, that no one wanted our help or advice or our company, that no one even wanted to listen to our stories, how would we feel? Miserable. So by being generous we are not being saints or heroes; we are avoiding a life of misery.
We live in a world that finds greed and selfishness normal. Yes they are quite common, but not normal – any more than having a pulmonary disease is normal. When you notice that you are displaying some of the symptoms, do something really normal like giving something away or helping someone. But don’t tell yourself you are being generous; tell yourself you are acting in a normal manner.
How do you imagine money? Do you see it as some sort of solid pile that you keep adding to – or instead as something liquid that is meant to flow? I think the second makes sense. Water is the most persistent metaphor in the language of money. People talk of liquid assets, frozen assets, currency, cash-flow, being solvent, flooding the market, floating a loan…. Even in the case of dirty money the metaphor still holds: slush funds and laundered money. There’s an intuition that money is useless unless it flows. When it is hoarded it loses all meaning, like blood that does not flow through the body, or like stagnant water. When you pay for something you haven’t just “lost” money; you have put money into circulation. If you lose money in some transaction, try to remember that someone else is making money by it. You are not being a profound philosopher; you are just seeing things in a normal way.
Now extend it from money to everything else: to your time, your property, your work…. When you give something away freely you are giving yourself away. When you give someone your time what are you giving? Yourself. This is how we are meant to live – giving and receiving freely, breathing in and out. It’s the healthy way to live.