Photo: Hannah Whitaker
My whole life I've been an over-giver. My general operating policy has always been, "If it belongs to me, don't worry: You can have it!" Over the years, I have over-given with my money, my stuff, my opinions, my time, my body, ("I know we've only just met, but of course we can make out in your cousin's car!") You name it, I have given it forth. I am especially over-giving toward people I just met yesterday afternoon at the gas station.
Now, over-giving is not quite the same thing as generosity. Generosity is neither entangling nor aggressive, because the generous person doesn't expect anything in return. The over-giver doesn't expect anything in return either—except to be petted and feted and praised and loved unconditionally for the rest of time (and I was)—so that's not emotionally loaded. Nothing toxic there!
For most of my life, my over-giving problem was relatively contained, limited by my own resources. But then a few years ago I wrote this book called Eat Pray Love, which sold about a bajillion copies, thus transforming me overnight into a wealthy woman, and presenting me with the amazing newfound opportunity to not merely over-give but to over-over-give. Oh, bliss! I was like an alcoholic locked in a distillery—what wonderful and terrible luck!
So of course I went on a full-octane over-giving bender. I gave to some charities and good causes, but mostly I gave heaps of money to people I knew and loved. I paid off my friends' credit card bills, caught them up on their mortgages, financed their dream projects, bought them plane tickets, tuition, therapy, gym memberships, vehicles. Sometimes (well, twice), I even bought them houses.
A neighbor dubbed my munificence "hip-hop charity"—because it reminded him of the way rap stars get rich and then buy Mercedes-Benzes for everyone back in the hood—but sharing money with my intimates felt so much more satisfying than sending off checks to some distant organization: I could see (and feel!) the gratitude so personally; it was a drug-like pleasure. Also, my giving bonanza went a long way toward leveling off the apparent karmic imbalance of my own crazy success—an imbalance that had left me feeling profoundly uncomfortable. (Why had I struck it rich while peers of equal or greater talent still struggled? Why not spread the good fortune around willy-nilly?) Finally, it was joyful and empowering: I was a dream-facilitator, an obstacle-banisher, a life-transformer! In short: Giving away money to my friends was so much goddamn fun!
Until suddenly it wasn't.
Until suddenly I didn't have some of those friends anymore.
I didn't lose those friends for the reasons you think, either. It isn't because "money is the root of all evil" or because "money changes everything." Listen—of course money changes everything, but so does sunlight, and so does food: These are powerful but neutral energy sources, neither inherently good nor evil but shaped only by the way we use them. When I lost my friends, it was because I had used the power of giving on them recklessly. I swept into their lives with my big fat checkbook, and I erased years of obstacles for them overnight—but sometimes, in the process, I also accidentally erased years of dignity. Sometimes, by interrupting his biographical narrative so jarringly, I denied a friend the opportunity to learn his own vital life lesson at his own pace. In other words, just when I believed I was operating as a dream-facilitator, I was actually turning into a destiny disruptor.
We Hear You!