My grandfather had three life lessons.
The first one he shared with me while at Dixon Hall for a Tulane Summer Lyric Theatre matinee. I was nine. We were walking through the hall connecting the annex to the Italian Renaissance auditorium with mere minutes to spare before curtain. He ducked into the men’s room, risking that we wouldn’t be seated when the show began. He glanced at my questioning expression and said, “Annie, never miss an opportunity to go to the bathroom.” So I went. We were in our seats in time to applaud the conductor, and I have never missed an opportunity since. Every pit stop, every intermission, before dinner at restaurants, I hear Grandpa, and I go.
The second lesson he taught me was under the oak trees of our family home in Bay Saint Louis. I wasn’t yet fifteen. I had a crew of friends with me from New Orleans to spend a weekend in the Bay. As we were skittering down the rolling lawn to the beach, Grandpa smiled at us and said, “Annie, family should always be rich with friends.” Growing up, I had more aunts and uncles than I could count, and cousins galore. They were always around, like family, but half weren’t even related. It was a rich blend of this and that and showed me what makes a family.
His final lesson came in a letter when I was in that murky divide between college graduation and “now what.” He told me, “Be generous.”
I was raised at lingering dinners by a bunch of well-read artists. Incredibly bright and passionate, suppers were shared over debating current affairs with wit, prose recitation competitions, and half a dozen German drinking songs woven between. Evenings were alive with obligatory fervor. And that is how Grandpa saw the world.
Generosity wasn’t about money, but it was about gifts. To Grandpa, being generous meant to participate. He believed every person has a talent, a treasure, or a spectacular idea that must be shared. He had a knack for seeing it before you did. Just before he told me to be generous, he told me that I was a writer. I didn’t listen for a long time.
Generosity is pretty basic. There’s nothing nuanced about using what you have to leave an impression on the world. What complicates it, what prevents it, is the utter vulnerability required. To be generous is to be susceptible to what follows. That’s terrifying.
Have you ever started something—a new business, a new act, a book, a presentation—and just as you begin, you have that moment? Something in your head laughs, “That’s freaking stupid. Next!” It’s doubt, the worst evil in the world. Doubt paralyzes creativity with its lies: Should we dare participate? We’ll be labeled and expected to keep up. We’ll look as stupid as our ideas are. Doubt identifies that we’re not good enough. We will fail and all of our flaws will be exposed. We’re safer keeping ideas hidden.
Have you ever received a request for a donation? At first you think of course you want to give—it’s a great cause and you think of all you’ll be helping. But then, as time draws nearer, you begin to change your mind. What if you need that money later? You see bills, separation between paychecks, your own spending in the way. If you give, you might be short. You don’t have what it takes to give. You’re safer keeping your money with you. Gifts are no different.
Now what if you knew of a money hoarder who could give back, change lives, stop starvation, save animals, and build housing and fund organizations? What if the hoarder, instead, kept the money and chose reluctance over eagerness? Wouldn’t we lambaste the hoarder?
Grandpa would say that we’re all just as guilty as the hoarder when we don’t participate, when doubt gets the last word. Doubt is the enemy of believing, and believing awakens the change maker residing in all of us. Our gifts heal. They do change the world, even if they simply touch a single life. To that life, your gift means the world. We may never know who we’re helping, but we help no one, especially ourselves, when we aren’t generous.
I know enough to know that before I write every blog, doubt will whisper that my idea is stupid. Even as I write this, I’m thinking, “Stupid.” I know that while waiting for it to publish I’ll second guess everything. But I also know that if I stifle myself, the believer in me will never rejoice.
In one of his last letters, Grandpa told me, “Remember: nothing ventured, nothing gained.” I don’t know what will happen each time I participate. Maybe this stupid blog will mean something? Maybe it won’t.
But at least I was generous.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.