The Paradox of Generous LivingFeatured — By Jeff Goins on August 14, 2012 at 5:00 am
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with my life,” she said. “Help!”
I told her to calm down and assured her that most people her age are in the same boat. They don’t who they are, much less what they’re supposed to do.
However, I encouraged the questions she was asking, because they’re important ones. In fact, without them, most people are prone to waste a lot of valuable time.
I told Marissa to explore, to try out a few things—classes, majors, extracurricular activities—before she settled on a general theme for her life. Most importantly, I told her to do something unexpected: go where there is pain.
“If you want to discover your purpose,” I explained, “then you need to hang out in places where there is brokenness.”
A few weekends later, my wife and I drove a few hours to the University of Alabama in Birmingham to visit my sister.
Over lunch, Marissa told us how she had woken up early that morning and volunteered for a citywide community cleanup. She couldn’t stop smiling from ear to ear, and I couldn’t have been prouder.
She was beginning to understand something that took me a decade to learn: we find our vocations not by focusing on ourselves, but by focusing on others.
Part of correcting our identity problem is figuring out what to do with our lives—what career path to follow, what person to marry, when to take that trip overseas. Those are the wrong questions to ask.
The right question is, “What’s broken that needs to be fixed?” Usually the solution is you, doing something about it.
When we intersect with the needs of a dying world, we realize our talents, gifts, and passions are not merely ours to enjoy; they are intended as sacrifices. We who were born into privilege and opportunity were given these gifts with an expectation: to give them away.
Unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains a single seed. But if it does die, it multiplies. This is the paradox of life. The more you give, the more you get. You find your life by losing it.
My first experience with this upside-down way of living was in college. I had some friends visiting from out of town and had ten dollars to my name.
They were driving cross-country, and I wanted to take care of them. But I was also concerned aboutblowing my last ten bucks. So I said a prayer for provision, and bought the three of us coffee, exhausting my final few dollars.
After that, everywhere I looked people were offering us meals, giving me stuff out of the blue, and anonymously leaving money in places where I would find it. It was bizarre.
The strangest incident was when I found a random envelope pinned to a public message board with my name written on it. Inside the envelope was a ten-dollar bill stuffed between two index cards.
Later that night, my friends and I went out to dinner. Without offering, someone picked up the bill. So I did the only logical thing I could think of: I left the waitress a ten-dollar tip.
This is an important principle for living a meaningful life. The more generous you are to others, the more everyday blessings will present themselves in unexpected places. One friend said it like this: “The less stingy you are with the universe, the less stingy it will be with you.”
This means more than karma. It’s about going above and beyond to be generous—as an act of gratitude for the grace we’ve received. And somehow, paradoxically, our needs are taken care of in the process. Although I still struggle with letting go, I’m learning that the finer things in life cannot be purchased or held on to; they can only be found through giving our lives away.
Of course, this way of living isn’t new. It is, in fact, very old, and we are all familiar with it, conceptually.
But many of us struggle to live it out in reality. As a result, we often feel empty—never satisfied, always searching.
Henry David Thoreau once said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Perhaps the reason for this is that we got everything we wanted, and it still wasn’t enough.
You’ve been lied to. You were told that if you worked hard enough, put enough hours in, and got good grades, you’d be happy. You’d finally get your reward, and then you could start really living. You could afford to be a little generous, tithing 10 percent to church and helping out the occasional friend down on his luck.
But face it: something about this just feels wrong. Trust that feeling.
There is a longing in your heart, an emptiness in your soul waiting to be filled. This feeling is not an accident; it exists as a reminder that there is something more to life than what we can see. It’s that nagging sense that Morpheus put into words: “You’ve been living in a dream world . . .”
We must wake up. If we are going to find our callings, we must live intentionally and audaciously. And we must be generous.
This choice is not an easy one, and it doesn’t come naturally, but it’s how we were meant to live. It’s the only way—I’m quite convinced of this—that we can find the satisfaction we’ve been searching for, the lives we’ve been dreaming of.
And although there are legitimate health, business, and psychological benefits to generous living, the most important one is this: generosity gives your life meaning. But not without a cost.
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, “Alas for those that never sing, but die with all their music in them.”
I’ve met people like this. People with amazing voices who literally will not sing—not because they don’t know the song, but because they’re afraid to sing. Apply this to any field, vocation, or passion, and you’ll find hordes of people scared to play the hands they’ve been dealt in life.
Do you want to know what the “music” that Holmes talked about is? It’s love. Radical, reckless, giving love. The more of it you give, the more you get.
Jeff Goins is a writer who lives in Nashville. You can follow him on his blog at goinswriter.com or connect with him on Twitter @jeffgoins. This is an excerpt from his first book, Wrecked, which just came out. You can find out more about it at wreckedthebook.com