I want to teach my daughter about generosity, especially as the holidays approach. So, of course, I’m thinking about things we can do for other people. You know, bring meals to sick friends. Write cards to neighbors who are going through tough times. Shop, do errands, or carpool for people who need a little bit of help.
But, really, I want my daughter to also learn the bigger definition of generosity. Perhaps the more difficult one to sustain in our daily lives. The definition that asks me to put aside my petty differences and be kind to a fellow human being. Communal generosity, let’s call it. I’m thinking about things like overlooking when someone cuts you off in traffic, but they probably didn’t mean it. Or when some guy sneezes on me in the grocery store. That kind of stuff.
I benefit from communal generosity from others on a regular basis. For example, I recently wrote a piece about the struggles (and failures) of my traveling on airplanes with a young child. In response, I received an angry letter from a reader who claimed that I should, in fact, control all the offensive behaviors generated by my 2-year-old daughter. Of course, I, more than anyone on the planet, would absolutely love to corralle my child in the way suggested by this irate reader (I believe he suggested I hold my child’s feet until she stop kicking the seat in front of her; I considered this advice, but decided the deafening screams would be more offensive to the rest of the airplane than the original seat kicking). Unfortunately, that is the law of 2-year-olds: “I want. . . I want. . . I want. . . fight with all your will, authority figures, and I will only scream louder.”
But other readers, parents and non-parents alike, proclaimed uninhibited support for my confessions about the difficulties of airplane travel, especially in the face of the reader’s criticism. It’s not that I deserve such consideration, for clearly, a single parent and child on an airplane strike fear into the hearts of even the most courageous passengers. But instead, I gratefully accept the generosity these readers (and fellow airplane passengers) exhibit.
What I will teach my daughter about generosity is that despite an immediate irritation that I may have every right to resent, there might be a larger, more detailed story behind the offensive behavior. I am working on this concept of communal generosity that I would love for my daughter to embrace.
The concept goes something like this: yes, my 2-year-old and I will probably make this Christmas’s 3-hour plane flight a little louder, and stickier, than if we weren’t present. And yes, I will rely on the holiday generosity of strangers to get through it (Blanche DuBois be honored).
And when I receive such sweet consideration of the avuncular man seated in the aisle next to myself and my little dear, who offers a butterscotch or sketches a kitten to amuse my daughter, I will avowedly repay.
I will repay such stranger-generosity in the supermarket, when an older gentleman jams the self-checkout because he didn’t scan the right part of his cough medicine box. I will forgive the 20-something girl who’s cellphone conversation smacks of Brittany-Spears and sorority exploits (“Like, it was off the hook, girlie!”).
I will also dig deep to overlook the man, likely one much like my irate reader, who constantly seems to sit next to me in Starbucks or the library and cannot control his sneezes. Or his ever-flowing, louder than a foghorn, phlegm-filled coughs and (gag!) swallows.
I will ignore these most irritating elements of my daily life, and I will teach my daughter to do the same, because there have been so many people who have acted as generously to me. I will instruct my daughter that we can spread peace on earth and goodwill to humankind, the true message of Christmas, by overlooking the public sins of a hassled and overburdened third party. Because really, those sins are only petty details to the rest of us, but a little generosity regarding them may mean the world to the recipient.
Happy Holidays to you and yours. And, thank you, everyone out there, who doesn’t cringe at my presence on the airplane this December. And to those of you who do: best wishes to you the next time you have some kind of contagious cough and must go to the supermarket anyway, to retrieve your medicine. Here’s hoping you receive better than you’ve given out this holiday season.