We spend a lot of our lives interacting with other people. Sometimes, it seems as though hearing others’ viewpoints and opinions makes us even more confident in our own positions. Yet, when it comes to experiencing others’ gloomy moods or behaviors, we can quickly be influenced to turn negative ourselves. We cannot definitively understand what it feels like to walk in another person’s shoes or what leads them to act as they do, no matter how intuitive, worldly, wise and compassionate we may consider ourselves to be. If we keep in mind the unique challenges others may be facing, we can remind ourselves how many times in life we can afford to be generous.
The other night, our family went out to dinner. Given varying school, work and activity schedules these days, it is a major accomplishment to gather everyone together and I was really looking forward to the outing. Unfortunately, we ran into a roadblock to the idyllic family dinner I had anticipated. Our waitress was having a phenomenally bad night. She made little eye contact, looked as if she wished she was anywhere else other than waiting on our table, and seemed one spilled drink away from a complete meltdown. We did not know all the troubles that had befallen our waitress, but she did share that two wait staff had suddenly quit, so likely she was growing increasingly overwhelmed. We still had family time together, things to talk about, and good food to eat. We tried not to take her approach personally or add to her difficulties, but instead maintain the good moods we started dinner in. With someone who is struggling through a difficult day, we can afford to be generous.
Sometimes the generous approach requires us to take a long, hard look inward at our own lives and all the positives we have been fortunate enough to experience. When relationships with loved ones become tense and communication stops, we might nurture grudges and hurt feelings instead of trying to work through them. If we choose to try and be grateful for all the positives in our lives, we sometimes gather the courage to make the first move toward reconnection. Although it is not always possible to reconcile or return to the way things were, we may have been given gifts that help us open our hearts to forgiveness and possibilities. With someone who has stumbled off the path of communication, we can afford to be generous.
We often form early opinions of other people that stay fairly consistent, no matter how they might act or change over time. It is sometimes easier to label someone a certain way rather than expand our viewpoints to reflect the complex nature of others. I work on a volunteer committee with someone who is very focused on getting things done, and my first impression of this individual was based mainly on their outstanding determination and strong will. When I look beyond the more prominent character traits, I discovered that my co-volunteer is extraordinarily patient with young children and extremely talented at teaching others about fundraising. People are so much more than first impressions or surface opinions. With our viewpoints of others, we can afford to be generous.
A generous spirit focuses more on gratitude for gifts we have been given than ways we believe others fall short of our expectations. We remember that we will never completely know the battles people are fighting, and negative encounters might be much more about the troubles they face than a desire to cause us unhappiness. Sometimes, we will be the ones who benefit from another’s generosity. I recently interacted with a store clerk on a day when I was worried about medical test results for a loved one. Distracted by anxious thoughts, I reacted far too harshly when she asked me if I wanted to open up a store credit account. She smiled and mentioned an understanding that people often do not need another credit card, but part of her job was to ask. She was not sarcastic, demeaning, or curt about it; she was kind and sincere in her response to me and it set my day on a better path. Extending positives toward others in even the smallest ways can make a world of difference to someone else. How can you afford to be generous today?
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.