What A Shy Waitress Taught Me About Generosity

11/02/2013 08:54 am ET | Updated Mar 11, 2015


It really is the thought that counts. Novelist Marilynne Robinson recalls an old man's bird, a handful of change -- and what they taught her about the essence of giving.

By Marilynne Robinson

When I was a graduate student, I had a cat. I had no particular affection for her, no doubt because she had none at all for me. But she was a gift from a friend. So I satisfied the basic requirements of cat ownership -- food, shelter, immunizations -- and she and I tried, pretty successfully, to stay out of each other's way. There was an old couple living a few doors down, holdouts in the spreading student slum that was pushing their modestly respectable neighborhood always deeper into weediness and dishevelment. The man was very gruff and cross. His wife had, so far as I know, only one facial expression, which I would not hesitate to translate as "I don't like him, either." Weather permitting, this old man sat outside in a lawn chair, pointedly not speaking to everyone who passed. He would sit there for hours, under his maple tree, and beside his bird feeder and his birdbath. And one terrible day, as I was sitting on the porch steps reading a book of no interest, the old man came up the sidewalk and said the first words he had ever said to me -- "Your cat killed my bird!" He said, "That bird came back every year! It knew me! It would eat right out of my hand!" He showed me the very hand it would eat from, in the gesture of offering, futile now. He was baffled by the enormity of the fact that my cat should have mistaken that bird for just any ordinary bird, baffled by an irreversible loss that nothing could compensate. And so was I. In his sad fury, he tried to make me feel how terrible it was, and yet I could see he did not trust me to feel it. I did feel it, and I do. If I could go back through my life and put certain things right, that bird would be seen to before many things of objectively graver importance. If I had known that there was, in that neighborhood, a bird unique in the universe, who remembered its way back to that somber house to eat from that speckled hand, that cat of mine would never have left my sight. But in fact there was little to say and nothing to do.

It is terrible to realize how little we can know about the real value of anything. Value, all but the most trivial forms of it, is created in relationship, and created in the uniqueness of the relationship. The best good I could have done for my old neighbor would have been to mind my cat. How I wish he could have regarded me during those years with only habitual contempt and never have had occasion to speak to me at all. My great gift would have been not to deprive him, not to impoverish his life. The first generosity may well be attentive respect. I had noticed that birdbath, but only that it was awkward, weighty, gray -- of a piece with everything I thought I knew about that man.

All the ecologies of value grow and elaborate themselves in deepest privacy. Even we might not know what a home or a friendship means to us until we leave it or lose it. So how can we have sufficient care of other people not to do harm, out of indifference or clumsiness or the failure of imagination?

Here is another tale from my youth, another lesson, as I take it, in the intense flourishing of value, in fact a blossoming tropic of value, contained within a very specific and private, even solitary, experience. I have never been much good at the things most people do. One summer, while I was in college, I worked for one day as a waitress in the restaurant of a hotel in my hometown. That was my first and last venture into a world my college friends managed with aplomb. They all had summer jobs in scenic places. They dealt with people. It seemed to me to give them an enviable kind of social authority. I knew that my own unbroken history of unemployment, grateful as I am for all the reading I got done, amounted basically to hiding out. So when my job lasted only one day, I was not at all surprised, though I was deeply alarmed at having every relevant anxiety justified.

I spilled just the tiniest bit of soup into the lap of a well-dressed man. I was sent forthwith to the kitchen and spent the rest of that somber day washing lettuces.

A shy, small, older woman, a lifelong waitress, I suspect, felt for some reason that I had been treated unjustly, and brooded on this thought till her shift was over. Then she came to me in the kitchen, scooped handfuls of money out of her apron pockets, and spilled it out onto the table. She gave me a look of fierce satisfaction -- she knew what was right, and she would make things right, bearing all the cost herself. I remember that money spilling from her hands, a magnificent gesture that made manifest in all those dollars and quarters and dimes the value they had for her, the wonderful gift she was making to me.

I could not take her money. And I could see that my refusal of it hurt her. Frankly, it had seemed about right to me that I should only be trusted with lettuces. I don't know what story she had been telling herself all those hours that could have made her indignant for my sake, so her gift took me by surprise. Even all these years later, when perhaps nothing of her remains in the world more vividly than my memory of that look of hers, that angry, joyful look, as she threw her small weight against the arbitrary powers of her world -- even now I don't know what I should have done. Of course I could not take her money. It flowed like silk from her hands. It was beautiful to her.

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.

So the first generosity must be not to destroy. On a large scale, what is not to be destroyed includes the peace of those who are deprived and exploited. It includes the health of individuals and populations whose share of the earth's good things is wasted or corrupted because of gross inequalities of wealth, and also the health of the earth itself. It includes the integrity of any culture, especially our own, which is presently afflicted with a crude and pointless cynicism, to the detriment of the whole world. That includes every relationship of trust or honor.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, in 1892, made a speech to committees of both houses of Congress. The speech was titled "Solitude of Self." It was an appeal for justice on behalf of American women, but it could serve as well as an appeal on behalf of anyone anywhere. She said, "The point I wish plainly to bring before you on this occasion is the individuality of each human soul...the right of individual conscience and judgment.... We come into the world alone, unlike all who have gone before us; we leave it alone under circumstances peculiar to ourselves. No mortal ever has been, no mortal ever will be like the soul just launched on the sea of life.... Nature never repeats herself, and the possibilities of one human soul will never be found in another.... In that solemn solitude of self, that links us with the immeasurable and the eternal, each soul lives alone forever.... Our inner being, which we call ourself, no eye nor touch of man or angel has ever pierced.... Such is individual life. Who, I ask you, can take, dare take, on himself the rights, the duties, the responsibilities of another human soul?" In 1915 the United States government printed 10,000 copies of this speech and mailed it all over the world. A society based on profound respect for the individual as such, the soul as such -- this idea is not foreign to us. Perhaps it is, as Stanton says, the essence of everything we value, everything that has ever made us capable of real generosity toward others, or made us able to feel, as we do too rarely now, the pleasure of our own inwardness, and the prodigal wealth of inwardness that surrounds us.

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