Even worse, sometimes my over-giving left friends feeling shamed and laid bare. Sometimes, for instance, "lack of money" hadn't been a friend's problem in the first place: Maybe her real problem had been lack of confidence or organization or motivation. Maybe by erasing her money problems, all I'd done was suddenly expose her other problems. Maybe such rapid exposure is a dreadful thing to do to somebody. (As a great British wit once quipped, "You can always tell people who live for others, by the anguished expressions on the faces of the others.") All I know is, those friendships withered under a cloud of mutual discomfort, and now we cross the street to avoid running into each other.

Years ago, in India, a monk warned me, "Never give anyone more than they are emotionally capable of receiving, or they will have no choice but to hate you for it." At the time, the advice sounded cynical, even cruel. It certainly flew in the face of Christianity's highest charitable ideals, as famously expressed by Mother Teresa: "Give until it hurts." But these days, I've come to believe that when you give heedlessly or with an agenda, you actually can give until it hurts, and that the person who is most gravely injured in the exchange is the other guy.

So I don't do it anymore.

Don't get me wrong: I'll always be a giver. I still see generosity as one of humanity's great natural watersheds—a place where lives can be cleansed, renewed, filtered back toward grace. But a watershed is a delicate ecosystem, so I've learned to watch where I step. I'm more likely to trust the well-established charities nowadays than to practice social engineering within my own circle. Granted, I don't get the same endorphin rush that I used to get by waving a magic wand in someone's face...but I do get to keep my friends now, so that's a boon.

And I try to keep it in scale. The other day I was in a New York subway station, watching a woman I'd never met before struggling to make her outdated MetroCard work in the turnstile. She didn't speak English, and nobody was helping her out. I wasn't in a hurry, so I took ten minutes to carefully show her how the whole system worked—how to buy a new MetroCard from the machine, how to add credit to it, how to swipe it. I didn't give her any money; I just gave her my attention and then went on my way. It was a simple exchange, but I think it made both of us feel good. I was a little tempted to buy her a house, mind you, but I talked myself out of it—because as much as humanly possible these days, I try not to give anymore until it hurts. Instead, I only give until it helps.

After that, not a penny more.

More Words of Wisdom from Elizabeth Gilbert


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