I once heard a Mennonite missionary tell the following story.
When he was growing up in the US, their family would, after steeping a tea bag, dry it out on the counter. When they had a good number, they sent them overseas to families doing relief and development work with Mennonite Central Committee. The idea was that the missionary would enjoy the tea left over in the bag.
Yes, the gesture was rooted in a place of generosity and one has to marvel at this superlative frugality. But the error is fairly obvious. Why didn’t the supporting family just send new tea bags? Then, the recipient could enjoy the first use themselves, as well as the subsequent use.
While this seems obvious, I am often guilty of a similar mindset. That is, generosity often does not receive pride of place in my plans.
In our culture, big things (career, large projects) are often dedicated to the accumulation of money or status. The leftovers (of time, money) are for generosity. Sometimes.
But what if we committed to the opposite? What if we offered the big things to generosity?
This is the idea behind our dedication of all profits of Sorin Starts a School to the work of the Holy Cross in Dhaka, and namely the flourishing of Notre Dame University Bangladesh.
We are pumped to share that we are on schedule and set to ship out the books this May. Here’s to offering the big things to generosity, to love.
Today, there are far too many things to pay attention to, and there is far too little time to attend to them.
On my better days, I aspire to deal with the above problem accordingly: I desire to consider what I value most, and to structure my time accordingly.
Often, instead, I allow my attention to be scattered by the next email, the next text, the next darn thing, instead of ordered by what I consider to be of ultimate importance.
In this second instance, my failure to choose functions as a choice.
My younger son (almost two) has started to do something fascinating.
When I ask him to do something that he does want to do, he doesn’t say, “no.”
He says, “later.”
I know that I can do this too, in tasks I desire to have done, but often fail to start. Reaching out to a friend, thoughtfully planning for the future, general household maintenance… I don’t tell myself that I won’t do it. I say that I will do it later. This dynamic does not enhance my life.
“Later” can be a trap, a way to avoid a strenuous but generous path.
Is our relationship with the church more like that of a restaurant or a kitchen?
Is it a place where we wait to receive something that another prepares, and then evaluate the offering?
Or is it a place where we are part of a creative team with a mission? A place where we hone productive habits and generously share our gifts?
When I was learning to program, the first thing the instructors taught us was a framework for effective feedback. The feedback we offered to our partners was to be actionable, specific, and kind.
And “kind” was not “nice.” We were not to be vague and falsely flowery. Instead, we were to courageously offer a partner the gift of constructive feedback, a gift of growth.
Knowing how to give feedback, we were now on the hook to actually offer it when the time came, to take the risk that the exercise implied.
How often do we, when we see a situation in need of insight and compassion, neglect to even engage the dynamic? It is far easier to complain about the person concerned or fold our observation into the other noise in our head.
Though it is not easy, the risk of actionable, specific, and kind feedback is a risk worth taking.
How is that moral high ground you’ve claimed?
Feels amazing, doesn’t it? The high of claiming the moral high ground is intoxicating.
The thing is, though, that this high keeps us from actually creating the relationships that would enable generous principles to enter the world. If stuck on the high ground, we spend time protecting and purifying our position (that is, polishing our idols) which further limits what we are able to see and do.
Often, those who lead the most compelling lives don’t pay all that much attention to the moral high ground. Certainly, they are principled, but they focus their energy instead on encountering people as they are and inviting them along to build a world in which it is easier to be good.
I taught for a number of years in a remarkable middle school where student trust and cooperation were earned. Put another way, classroom management was a constant challenge.
One of the most effective classroom management techniques is to “narrate the positive”. That is, to verbally recognize the excellence and effort that you see. Even if it is only one or two students, calling out these positive exemplars can transform a classroom.
I see Mr. Smith has closed his Chromebook and is thoughtfully annotating the text.
I see Mr. Johnson is carefully editing his partner’s story according to the rubric. Outstanding.
Soon, the whole class is caught in the virtuous cycle.
What if we chose to do this more in public life?
I appreciate your generous risk-taking when you…
And what if we did this in the church?
I appreciate how you vulnerably live your vocation because…
Let’s commit to imaginatively narrate the positive more often.
When Leonardo da Vinci was fourteen, he began working in the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio, a superlative Florentine artist. (Verrochio’s teacher was Donatello. These people were good.)
As art historians studied the paintings that came out of Verrochio’s workshop, they saw that many artists contributed to the same canvas. That is, Leonardo, Verrochio, and associates painted on the same canvas in order to create the same Renaissance masterpiece.
Can you imagine? Consider the patience, empathy, and communication needed to paint a consistent, astounding whole.
We need these same skills as we build our communities, large and small.
Too often, strain arouses our indignation and causes us to retreat into old, stunting narratives. Narratives that allow us to claim the moral high ground but don’t lead anywhere productive.
So, instead, ask and answer: Rather than this confounding situation, what specifically do you desire?
Articulating a positive and achievable future is freeing, but it also puts us on the hook. We suddenly see the next steps of hard, generous work toward building a world in which it is easier to be good. Seeing these steps, we can then become responsible for them and act on them.
What confounding situation is waiting for your articulation of a positive and achievable future?
Advice that we offer to others tends to be autobiographical. That is, we tend to give the advice that we need (or have needed) to take.
To the extent that this writing constitutes advice, the above observation is quite true. It is largely my failures in accompaniment, attentiveness, and contribution that fuel my interest to develop language and practice around this topic.
So please know that, if what I write seems like advice, I’ve let that advice into my own life first.