When she imagined that moment, preparing it all evening tip by tip, enjoying the money for my sake, she probably imagined my gratitude as the culmination of it all—not as her reward, precisely, but as a moment of understanding between us that there is justice in the world, and people who are loyal to it. In that moment, surprised as I was, I disappointed her. She came to my mind while I was struggling to describe that noblest of virtues, generosity. So she has given me something uniquely valuable.
And I fell to pondering the biblical story of the widow's mite. Jesus, who has traveled with his disciples to Jerusalem for the Passover, is watching those who come to make their offerings to the temple treasury. He draws the disciples' attention to a widow who has given two small coins, saying that while others gave out of their abundance, she gave "all that she had, even all her living." How would he have known this? Perhaps she gave one coin, hesitated, and then, in defiance of circumstance, tossed the other after it. The meaning of the story, as I read it, is that an act of true generosity is an act of courage. In both Mark and Luke the point is made that the widow has not one but two coins, together equaling one mite. Since she is a poor widow, if she had given one coin and kept one she'd have been generous by any ordinary standard. But she gave them both. And since there was nothing in her experience to encourage the expectation of any material reward for her gesture, I think it might be best to imagine a kind of pure gallantry in it, an act of loyalty to what she loved best, a gift made freely, in contempt of circumstance. Then the extravagance of the gift would have made it beautiful to her, a delight to her.
So generosity is also an act of freedom, a casting off of the constraints of prudence and self-interest. In this it is so like an art that I think it may actually be the impulse behind art. I do not say this only because the waitress of blessed memory clearly planned and intended a beautiful moment, and achieved one, too, though clearly that is a factor in my thinking. In the case of the poor widow, it is not the gift that merits praise but the courage and the freedom the giver has found, created, sustained in herself in the poverty and solitude of her widowed life.
As I regard in memory the figure and gesture and expression of that waitress, I feel that I was seeing what might be called a history of her inwardness. Her sense of justice had been whetted by friction, honed by abrasion, I believe. She had the look of someone who had lived a very hard life. She was serious, vigorous, and efficient, and old to be doing such heavy work. She seemed like someone accustomed to the fact that she could always be replaced, maybe by a college girl who didn't really need the money. When she was rebuked or treated unfairly, I suppose she had no choice but to take it. There was no one to set matters right for her. And I think she put together, from the difficulties and disappointments of her experience, the thought of what a beautiful thing justice would be, how wonderful a rescuer or a defender would be. And when, for whatever reason, she felt the moment had come, she took the part on herself. Like the widow in the story, she said, "I am not weak or poor except in my circumstances. It is freedom that defines me, and courage. I can be loyal to high things. And I can be gracious." The widow and the waitress knew more about the value of money than economists will ever know. So how powerful they were in handing it away.
Yet I had to refuse the gift. Then how could I have been generous in return for her generosity? At the time I had no idea. In retrospect, I hope I treated her with some part of the respect she deserved, before the business of the soup and my exile among the lettuces, before she made her gift. I was young and still had not learned from her that the only way to limit the regret we feel for our inadequacy toward one another is consistent, presumptive respect, attentive and imaginative respect.
My intention when I began writing was to define generosity. I tried starting with an account of the things we give, but that struck me as obvious and somehow inessential. Then I considered the things we withhold, the failures of generosity, to define the thing by its absence the way scientists determine the effect of a gene by excising it. And pondering the things we might give and also might withhold, for example, respect and attention, I began to realize how inadequate they are, too, because we can never give them sufficiently or consistently, try as we must. I concluded that what we are dealing with, the human other, exists outside every ordinary calculation of value, which is surely one definition of the sacred.
Next: "So the first generosity must be not to destroy."
We Hear You!