Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Extravagant gestures: making them, receiving them, and learning from them

“The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.” My mother sent me this quotation from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard after receiving it herself from the website

I haven’t read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in many years, and I don’t know the context of the quote, but I do know why my mother sent it to me. My parents and I had been talking earlier in the week about acts of generosity, the human impulse toward altruism, and what can well be termed “extravagant gestures.”

The subject came up because my parents are friendly with a woman from their church whose husband recently died. The couple has several adult children as well as many grandchildren, and the multigenerational group would soon be gathering for a memorial service. My mother offered to make dinner for all of them, and the widow responded that it was a wonderful idea and she only wished she had enough room to serve dinner to her whole family. As it happens, I take a fair amount of ribbing – some good-natured and some not so much – for having a bigger house than I justifiably need, and I was only too happy to offer them the use of our house for their gathering.

My parents lavished me with kind words, calling it an extravagant gesture for a family I didn’t even know; to me it seemed simply like a logical way to help a fellow human being. The size of my house causes some guilt to me and a small amount of controversy within my personal circles; in a way, this was a chance to mitigate my guilt a little bit, even if just for one evening, about being such a gross American consumer.

But my parents’ kind praise reminded me of conversations I’d had almost a year ago, when I was the recipient of an extravagant gesture. Last April, a close relative (who modestly prefers not to keep being directly identified with this amazing act of kindness) told me that she was going to pay for my tuition to attend a writers’ conference I dearly wanted to attend but couldn’t possibly afford on my own.

It wasn’t anything I’d ever discussed with her. The announcement that she would send me to the conference came out of thin air. And I’m embarrassed to admit my first reaction was, “Oh, I couldn’t possibly do that.” It’s too much. It’s too generous. I couldn’t possibly accept it.

Fortunately, I didn’t say that. I listened instead to my husband, my parents and a close friend, who all said the same thing, “Of course you will accept it! How wonderful! People don’t offer generous gifts with the hope they’ll be rejected.” Glad I’d sought their advice, I did go to the conference and had the experience of a lifetime, but to this day I continue to feel somewhat awestruck by my relative’s generosity.

So to me, that was the definition of an extravagant gesture, and knowing what my reaction to it was, I thought the family at my parents’ church would react similarly to my suggestion that they have their party at my house: “Oh, that’s crazy, we couldn’t possibly do that. We don’t even know you.” But they didn’t. They accepted the offer and had their party, and I genuinely admire them for finding it easy to accept a perhaps extravagant gesture. It was not so easy for me, but fortunately, wiser voices pushed me in the right direction.

What I’ve come to believe is that it’s human nature to want to be generous; it’s just that each of us has a different level of generosity to offer. Few people could make a gesture like what my relative did, but after offering my house for the party, I understood a little bit more about why she did it. It was something she could do for me, just as lending the house was something I could do for this family. And I’d like to think I’ve learned a lesson by being both the recipient and the perpetrator of an “extravagant gesture”: just as those I sought advice from said, generous people want their generosity to be accepted. So when I was the recipient of yet another extravagant gesture last week – a friend who was going away for vacation offered me the use of her netbook for the week – I was quick to say yes. Many thanks, and yes.

But sometimes it’s not easy for me to remember this, even on a very small scale. Last summer, my daughter and I were in line at an ice cream stand. Holly asked for chocolate sprinkles; I told her I’d brought exactly enough money for a cone and not an extra 35 cents for sprinkles (we rode our bikes to the stand, and since I had just one small pocket, it was easier to count out the change ahead of time than to bring my wallet). A young woman in line behind us reached forward and put 35 cents on the counter, and I’ll admit now I did a really gauche thing. I was embarrassed to be caught short and have to accept a favor, even a tiny 35-cent one, from a stranger, so I thanked her but said that my daughter really didn’t need the chocolate sprinkles. Thank you, but no.

I realized shortly afterwards I’d done the wrong thing, and maybe that’s why I admire people who can do the right thing. “The extravagant gesture is the very stuff of creation.” I’m not sure exactly what Annie Dillard meant by this – I’m inspired now to go back to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and find out – but I’ll continue in my quest to make extravagant gestures when I’m able. And, just as importantly, I’ll continue to try to accept them with grace.

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