When I fully realized that I couldn’t afford the car, I offered it to my teacher. He graciously declined, but suggested I give it to my girlfriend, for whom the insurance costs were lower. I was overjoyed at this option as I fully expected to drive the car as much as I liked. So the three of us went to the dealership to take delivery. Drooling copiously, I made my way to the driver’s seat of the brand-new performance sedan. My teacher came around to the window and waited for me to open it.
“You can’t drive this car,” he said.
“What? Why?!” I asked.
“You gave this car as a gift,” he said, “so you have to give it fully, with nothing attached.”
Seeing the truth of his words I skulked into the back seat for the ride home, and didn’t drive the car for the five years we owned it. Initially, riding in the passenger or backseat of my dream car was excruciating, but I gradually learned to quell my resentment, and learned a little more clearly what it means to truly give a gift.
Some months ago I was invited to a meeting at Miriam’s Well, a conference and retreat center in Saugerties, that was described as “a radical experiment in generosity.” Our host, a radiant man named Nipun Mehta, is the founder of an organization called CharityFocus that has the mission of giving and inspiring giving in the truest spirit of the word.
He began the meeting with these words:
“Imagine walking down the street and a woman comes up to you and says, ‘Hello. I have an offering for you.’ Puzzled, you look up and in your palm falls a $7,500 check. ‘Why me?’ ‘Serendipity,’ she says. ‘What should I do with it?’ ‘Whatever you want.’ ‘How did you decide on $7,500?’ ‘We sat in a circle of silence, wrote down a number on a piece of paper, and it averaged out to $7,500.’ And then she walks away. Now, that’s a pretty ridiculous story, but that’s what has brought us together here. Except that instead of running into this woman on the street, I ran into her on the Internet.”
Following Nipun’s introduction, the assembled group—included a doctor, an Internet entrepreneur, a professional soccer player turned Hollywood actor, a Zen Buddhist chaplain, and a TV news producer—shared experiences that reflected each person’s understanding of generosity. One man described finishing a bike ride on a busy Manhattan sidewalk. Out of nowhere a street vendor appeared with a chair for him to sit comfortably while he changed his shoes. The rider thanked the vendor who looked him in the eye and said, “You know, I don’t have much, but I have my freedom.”
A woman described sitting beside an elderly man on a bus trip and discovering in their conversation that he was a holocaust survivor. He had lost a daughter, who would have been the woman’s age had she survived. She was touched by the gift of his story and for having his shoulder for support while she slept during the long journey.
Most notable about all the accounts was the absence of anything to do with money. The feeling of gratitude for someone’s generosity arose from the perfection of what was given in the moment, and the absence of any attachment afterward. The gift was the flow of attention, meaning, and love from one person to another.
At the conclusion of the evening each person was presented with a blank check for $500 to dispense to a “generosity entrepreneur” who would use the money to further the chain of giving. I couldn’t just fold up this check and put it in my wallet. It felt like a sacred document, like when I was at synagogue as a child, carefully holding the prayer book, which couldn’t be placed on a chair or the floor because it contained the name of G-d.
After several months of waiting to see where the money should go, I finally found the right place for it. But in the spirit of giving I will keep those details to myself.
The experience gave me a glimpse of the power of being a catalyst for giving—for in this instance I was not the giver, but the messenger. From this I realized that in fact I am never the giver of anything. To think that I have anything to give is hubris. Whatever I manifest is just passing through, though I may be the agent of delivery. This, I believe, is not only the essence of generosity, but also the key to an abundant life, for if we see that the source of our insights, energy, and even money is limitless, we can behave in a manner that evokes the limitlessness in our lives.