An Essence of Generosity

I took this in a local hospital bathroom. I thought it a funny example of how rural this area of Thailand can be. It is not an example of how stupid people are..

I took this in a local hospital bathroom. I thought it a funny example of how rural this area of Thailand can be. It is not an example of how stupid people are..

   What fancy toilets look like in the rural world.


What fancy toilets look like in the rural world.

In my youth, I was a financially generous person. I remember helping people out if they were short on cash, and buying people lunches, sodas, beers, whatever without an expectation of being repaid. I even had friendships with equally generous persons and we never kept tabs - we just always assumed it would work out. I was also not a big proponent of savings and chronically carried credit card debt, but I didn’t think it mattered. I always “knew” I would be good for it, and I would get that break I was waiting for – I just never knew what the break I was looking for was. I grew up in an age of exceptionalism, where working hard and getting an education would take you anywhere you wanted to go.

At some point, I feel that I lost that generosity and I do not know specifically when it happened. Perhaps something broke when I was laid-off in 2008, or maybe with all my educational retooling I fell behind in my income - actually that is not a maybe. I was fortunate to still have many generous friends who would foot my bill so that I could continue to spend time with them all. Going out was popular with my friends in my late 20’s and early 30’s, and that is not a cheap habit in Chicago. I remember having to swallow my pride and accept their generosity.

As I have finally started to become an adult, our finances have slowly started to come into order. I am saddled with some crushing student loan debt (a choice Susan and I made together), and we have been making a concerted effort at personal and retirement savings as well. Despite all this, I have been thrilled with my career choice, and happier with my life than I can remember. So happy and comfortable, that we chose to forego a year of additional savings towards retirement, preparation for having a child, abandoned our amazing friends and family,  etc… and came to Thailand to work for free! Of course, coming to Thailand was not possible without the astounding generosity (which is seemingly endless) of so many.

Can I just tell you, I feel generous again and generosity feels wonderful. I cannot believe that I stopped appreciating it about myself. I expect that if I did an unscientific survey of my friends they would say that I have been generous with my time, my advice, or that I am generally a generous person; hopefully I will appreciate that more about myself upon my return.

I am also happy to recognize a grander definition of generosity, one that includes kindness, selflessness, and generosity of spirit to name a few.

I know that some of the reasons I care about this idea is that I come from an extremely generous family. As I struggled through my transition to become a nurse, my mom would slip me money any time I visited because she knew I was too proud to ask unless it was dire. My dad has always been extremely generous. I could not tell you the number of times I have seen him buy a round at a tavern, pickup a dinner tab for someone he knows in a restaurant, or that he bought lunch for his employees when he owned the funeral homes. My family is one where we sneak around and talk to wait staff at the beginning of the meal so that we can pay for bills.  You get the idea.

At the same time I feel generous again, I am humbled by the generosity of my co-workers and the people we serve. They are always looking out for us by buying us snacks, cooking lunch to bring for us on outings, or outright buying us dinner. What feels like home about this generosity is that when we thank them, their response is saying “mai bpen rai” which means either “it is nothing” or “don’t worry about it”. Although I have long been forced to accept the generosity of my friends and family, it continues to tug at my heartstrings that people with so little want to give so much. And that was my big realization this week - they want to give.

The side of generosity that I take for granted is what it does for the giver. This is not an American Christmas or Birthday type of obligated giving. This is people cooking a special dish for you that may have only cost a dollar to make, this is people hand-making a card for you at work, this is people giving you a box of a treat they know you like which costs a dollar or a 4-pack of canned malted milk because it is all that they have to give you.

 Irregardless (love that word) of what the gift is, you look each person in the eye and see how the giddy expectation as the gift is opened, the pride that they have something to give, and maybe a hint of boosted self-esteem and self-worth in this interaction. And that is the other real aha, when we are really low, we feel that we do not have anything to offer, anything to give. It is easier to live with nothing, than to feel like you have nothing to give. I have been in that moment before. I suppose that this is why I have so much gratitude to be here with my wife: she can somehow always dig deeper and muster up something to give, and she helps me find what I have to give as well.

In a world and a country where it can be hard to be treated with decency when you live with HIV, the Sisters of Good Shepherd have built a place where these people are safe, appreciated, have work, are loved, and have built a community where they can be proud and generous. I have also been told that it boosts their spirits that Danish and American volunteers come and care about them and their lives here. I cannot match the generosity that is being afforded me every day, but perhaps my appreciation of their generosity is actually more important than my own generosity.

Low - Frustration Again! – I know eventually I will start to figure it out, but have you ever spent an inordinate amount of time with an oscillating fan near you? I find it hard to believe that I have not thrown my back out while picking up flashcards, sheets of paper, directions, etc… I feel like every t something goes flying across the room, and it is usually 3 or 4 items at a time! It's funny, I never thought oscillating fans would be on my list of what is not a first world problem!!

High Moment – This week I was invited to cook with one of the Hands of Hope workers who has HIV and lives in the Garden of Friendship with her husband. We fried fish (my favorite fish dish thus far), made sweet and sour pork and chicken from scratch, steamed some type of flower blossom, created a hot sauce with a mortar and pestle to dip the blossoms in, and – obviously- made rice. No common language, no problem! She did a quick demonstration of however she wanted me to cut, flip, mash, or stir. I had so much fun I was almost in tears a couple times. I was overwhelmed with appreciation for her taking the time to cook with me. She even grabbed a spoon for me, as we both tasted the sauces until they were just right. I sure love to cook too!

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