Probably every writer’s greatest blessing is when a reader quotes back from memory something you wrote which touched, challenged or encouraged them. This happened for me recently when someone told me that my definition of “generosity” in my book After the Trip: Unpacking Your Crosscultural Experience had really stuck with him. He reminded me that I defined it this way: Generosity can be measured as the added vulnerability we voluntarily expose ourselves to in order to reduce the vulnerability of others.
Of course, I’m only parroting Jesus here, who called out the widow who gave away her last two pennies ‘out of her own need’ over all those who gave large donations out of their abundance. The World Vision donors I work with would completely agree with my definition: the number of zeroes in a check is a poor measure of true generosity, as helpful and even life-changing as the donation might be for others.
My definition might seem sweeping and radical, yet it is perhaps only half the story. This week, I took the ‘great risk’ of meeting a friend for coffee… outdoors and wearing masks when we weren’t sipping our drinks. I’ve been very cautious during COVID, because of both my cancer battle last year and out of my strong desire to not sicken anyone else by my carelessness, especially medical workers.
How glorious it was to have an in-person conversation: we quickly soaked up 2.5 hours together! My friend loves playing basketball, and he hasn’t played since March. Toward the end of our coffee, as I was apologizing for my caution, he told me that he’d been contacted by his ball buddies last week, who declared that with COVID cases around us decreasing they should all get together that Saturday for a game–outdoors for safety. My friend was sorely tempted, but he emailed them back that because he was having coffee with a friend on the following Monday (yours truly), he would skip the game. “I couldn’t vouch for the behaviors of all ten of those guys,” he explained. I was deeply touched. In Andy’s case, he had voluntarily reduced his vulnerability in order to reduce mine. To me, this is the spirit of mask-wearing and the myriad small opportunities we have to reduce our vulnerability–not only for our own sake, but especially for the sake of others.
Vulnerability has been weighing very heavily on me today. I started my workday with a videochat to southern Africa. My colleague there apologized for some disruption in our meeting because the leader of one of our major programs there, a woman in her 30’s or 40’s, had earlier in the day lost her husband suddenly to a stroke. I couldn’t help but wonder if the quality of healthcare there was part of the reason that she suddenly found herself a widow. This came only a few days after we mourned the killing of a World Vision colleague in DR Congo from an ambush by roadside bandits, leaving a wife and five children behind.
This morning’s news burdened me all day. The vulnerabilities of life for our field staff are so different from my own, and these life-and-death realities for my colleagues always drive home this inequity very starkly. Many of these colleagues accept added vulnerabilities to themselves in order to reduce the vulnerability of others. They are aware of the risks.
Other times, it’s simply the accident of birth. Colleagues who are significantly smarter or more committed than me–or both, were born in places they didn’t choose any more than I chose mine. They may have Masters’ degrees and PhD’s in hydrology, agronomy, infectious diseases, etc. and yet they still live where medical care is marginal, roads are poor, or armed conflict simmers around them. Life can change—or end—in an instant, as they live out their calling.
When I am confronted once more with the passion and commitment of my colleagues around the world, and the added vulnerability they voluntarily expose themselves to in order to reduce the vulnerability of others, can it be any surprise that my yardstick of generosity has no dollar sign on it? Does yours?