Saturday, December 14, 2013

Help yourself, but for the love of God, help someone else too!


The title is borrowed from a Finnish lifestyle-blogger who had grown exasperated by a weekend of navel-gazing mindfulness meditation.

This supposed season of giving has got me thinking about how selfless I really can be, the though (and sometimes humbling) lessons one learns in trying to be a little more altruistic.

I'm going to try to keep it short and sweet, because frankly, when it comes to generosity and kindness, talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words.

If there's one thing that continuously puzzles me about the alternative strain of our Western culture, not to mention the culture as a whole, it is how self-absorbed it seems at times. If a developing nation amidst a crises, got a dollar for every time one of us took time to "work on myself", bought a "happiness"-inducing self-help book, or "manifested abundance for ourselves", they'd probably be manifesting an abundance of food, livelihoods, shelter, education and healthcare with those funds.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with working towards becoming a happier, more balanced, more mindful individual, our impulses to better our own internal lives, are all too often accompanied by a focus solely on the self. Self-discovery, building self-esteem, self-love, self-help can all be good things, but often they're not means to an end, but an enforcement of the solipsistic impulses inherent in human nature. Also known as selfishness.
This focus on "me", instead of "us", does not serve a society that already holds individualism and individual freedom as its core mores. In fact, there is a growing concern that on the whole we are growing less and less empathetic and attuned to the needs of others. And sure, it would seems that if everyone simply thought of others before themselves, it would solve a lot of our problems as a species.

It is interesting to watch people's reactions to situations that require magnanimity, empathy and generosity. Some people are fluidly and graciously giving, as though it's second nature to them, while others grudgingly do what they know is right. Still others calculate what benefit their "generosity" can yield them in the end and some seem to simply not see that another person might need something that's well within their power to give. Sometimes people are even willfully miserly, deriving pleasure from denying others their attention, help, or affection.

It's often the people who demand the most of those things, that are the least likely to give them to others. Folks who take more than they give, never ask how anyone else is doing, who love talking about themselves without being able to make it relevant to a wider context, or see another's point of view, who rejoice not in exchange, but in being in the right, who demand attention, love and help, but feel disinclined to give these things to others.


Actually, it's particularly illuminating to observe my own reactions to those situations. While it's easy to see the shortcomings of others, I find that personally, I can be impressively myopic about my own selfish impulses. In many ways they are second nature too, a learned behavior that's easy to slip into when "I'm tired, poor, over-worked, under-payed, unappreciated.".

Everyday we're all faced with situations where we're asked to give more than we'd like to, more than we feel like we comfortably could. To part with our time, our resources, our energy, our love and care.

One of the most important lessons I'm continuously learning is that our resources are not diminished by our being generous with them. More often than not they're multiplied, because generosity breeds generosity. Not necessarily in the direct exchange of "I'll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.", but in that  when everyone's generous with what they have, eventually everyone also ends up in the receiving end of that generosity.


When I feel stretched to my limit, worn out, like I've given my all, it's sometimes hard to imagine giving any more, yet for the last few years I've tried to make sure that I push myself, step outside my comfort zone and "pretend" that I'm more naturally generous than I am. Often, acting like you wish you naturally would, eventually becomes part your innate behavior.

I've found that though often feels easier to hold "yours" close to your chest, to be stingy with your time, to feel like the wittiest person in the room at the expense of others, than act like your better self, this ease is like feasting on junk food; it leaves me totally empty in the end, whereas if I hold my tongue, offer help that others don't necessarily even ask for, give generously from what I have, I usually end up with more of all of those things and a happy fullness, a sense of completeness.

Of course, one does not do nice things for others to gain more, or the feel righteous, those are just some of the nice fringe benefits of giving.

Nothing makes me feel more generous than the awe and gratitude for the generosity others have shown me. There's also nothing more humbling. Generosity and magnanimity have the power to speak louder than words about that which is truly important in life; they strengthen the common human bonds of family, friendship and community. In fact without them, those connections can become troubled and hollow.

Generosity is intimately tied to gratitude, another new age-y standby, because acknowledging all that we got (And let's face it, as a reader pointed out on my Rich & Poor-post, most of us have a lot more than most people most everywhere.) can sometimes help us see what we can part with.

Anytime is a good time to practice generosity both material and spiritual, but Christmas seems like a particularly apt season for it. So here's how I'm personally trying to be a little more generous this December:

1. Charitable causes instead of gifts, but cards and letters too. Just because I gave your gift money away doesn't mean that you don't deserve to know how much I care about you.
2. Doing things I don't particularly enjoy for the sake of others. And not being a scrooge about it.
3. Offering to help friends and neighbors even when they don't ask for help. This has already created some fun assignments.
4. Giving someone something they want, that's within my power to grant, even if it's inconvenient for me.
5. Doing nice things for complete strangers. This is a good way to practice having zero expectations of reciprocity, even on a subconscious level.


(Hi. Check out this picture of me while I write about self-absorption and stuff)

Feeling generous?

ps. Both these women have been very generous to me and now they're practicing the same for whomsoever would like a chance for a little extra magic in their Solstice. 


  1. Dear Milla, this is a beautiful post and I strongly believe in generosity and compassion being a wonderful reciprocal process - once you start, it keeps this loving light growing inside and outside.

    The pictures of your home and homemade gifts are a sweet echo to this, including you and Kissa ;o)

    My favourite part is probably this one : "Nothing makes me feel more generous than the awe and gratitude for the generosity others have shown me. There's also nothing more humbling. Generosity and magnanimity have the power to speak louder than words about that which is truly important in life; they strengthen the common human bonds of family, friendship and community. In fact without them, those connections can become troubled and hollow."

    Yet, some of us have grown with such a weak (or warped) sense of self that we tend to put other people's needs before our own reasonable ones - either as a daughter, sister, friend, mother... so we end up being constantly depleted (sometimes exhausted or burned-out) and unable to be a full-fledged person. And you can't truly give what you keep denying yourself.

    Do you see what I mean ?

    Thank you for being so you, Milla :o) You do inspire us to be both self-trusting and generous!


  2. "One of the most important lessons I'm continuously learning is that our resources are not diminished by our being generous with them."

    Nail on the head, yet again. I've been making an effort lately to be more generous, and more mindful about what generosity is. I totally agree that it really does make you feel more abundant.

    Such wisdom.


  3. OH. MY. GOD. You are so wonderfully right on! I wholeheartedly agree. Thank you for saying this. My, oh my, how people need to hear it!

  4. I very much believe in doing service (for charities, mother earth, friends, people, animals, just helping others) and it gives back so much. I was always put off by christianity but recently have been very interested in saints and their prayers. I love the st francis prayer. I usually read it daily, there is a line in it that says "For it is by self-forgetting that one finds." I love that. xo m

  5. i love this post! the title, your approach to generosity particularly during the holidays when the world and our families and communities ask much of us. it really resonates with me that giving a tiny bit more than convenient or comfortable ends up giving us the sweetest, fullest sense of satisfaction or completeness. i love your list of ways to give back during the holidays. especially seeing tasks that need being done for friends and neighbors and doing them. offering help in unique and useful ways. i want to do this and i know it would be a great example to set for lucy, not to mention she'll make it extra fun ;)

  6. What I really do find out, times and times again, is that being generous is a very important part of "working towards becoming a happier, more balanced, more mindful individual". But I do keep forgetting it. It's remarcable, in a way, how often I forget about things that are good for me! I even started a list (early to bed, going outside, at least an hour before sleep for reading and general pleasantness, being generous, etc) but then I forget to read the list;)
    Being oriented more towards others than solely on myself is especially tricky for me because in my crazy teenage hormones induced insanity I used to consider myself a piece of shit and figured that if I'm not worth anything and too much of a coward to commit suicide, I should exist only for others. It sounds great but it took me years to figure out that it's as much toxic as being completly selfish. And I really had to struggle very hard, learning to ask for things for myself, learning that I, too, deserve something. It's very hard to find a balance with these things. But so it is with most of life, no?

    What I find most surprising is that giving back is so rarely a part of all those self-help books and blogs, even the ones I generally like and consider reasonable. It is sometimes added to the-list-of-things-to-do-this-Christmas* but often it seems an afterthought. But I really do think that being a generous person is one of the best things one can do for oneself. It makes you acknowledge others and realise you are not alone. And it's good. But maybe it's just my catholic upbringing talking :)

    *things people do because it's Christmas _baffle_ me. I'm not sure what it's like in other countries byt in Poland we celebrate Christmas Eve, and because it's lent time the traditional dish is fish, carp to be precise. At some point in history someone figured it would be better to buy the carp alive, keep it in a tub and kill it just before preparing so it would be super-duper extra fresh. So it went for years and years, giant containers with too many fish slowly dying in them, transporting them home in plastic bags and many other ways of torturing poor animals. But recently people started to protest, some people realise that it's hurting the fish and they started to protest. Because it's Christmas and we should be nice to animals on Christmas. That's a good reason, right? ;)


  7. Lovely ideas that I'm complete agreed with, not only in this time but the whole year.
    I think your gorgeous cat wants it all for herself ;)
    Two days ago my boy and I adopted another lady cat. Sometimes giving is even more wonderful because you always get back multiplied.
    Have lovely Christmas!