Thinking Generously: How One Mental Tweak Made Me Richer

One thing my husband Alex and I decided to do at the beginning of our marriage was to commit to being generous. As two newlywed college students, of course, this was a lofty goal. But we made the commitment to, at the very least, be a couple who tithed.

If you’ve never heard of tithing, it’s a practice in Christianity in which you set aside ten percent of your income to give away. Typically, this means giving to the church, although it can also mean just giving to someone in need. It’s a practice commanded by God to reinforce perspective about money: that it’s not the most important thing in life, that we are always fortunate enough to be generous to others, and that all our blessings—not just the financial ones—come from God and are important. Setting aside our money is a physical representation and reminder of these things.

Alex was especially excited for us to do this together, because he’s an incredibly generous person, and the chance to get in the habit of giving to others was a big life goal for him. While I wanted to be generous too, I wasn’t as enthused. I’m a worrier, a very practical person. I need to know how we’re going to accomplish what, and I have a hard time trusting that everything will turn out okay.

Our mission to give generously, even when it was hard for us, was a bumpy road at times, but thankfully we’ve been able to give the ten percent (and at times, even above) that was our goal. Even better, this mindset of being generous has bled into a few other areas of life, and I’ve learned several lessons from it:

Our culture operates on a scarcity mindset. This is the opposite of a generosity mindset. Scarcity says, “There’s not enough,” “We won’t be okay,” and “We have to gather and hoard so we have enough resources to spare.” This mindset operates well in the American Dream, which is all about upward mobility and increasing wealth. While those values aren’t necessarily bad goals, it’s interesting how our quest for abundance leads us to be obsessed with having enough, and how some of the most fortunate people in the world (us), end up so unsatisfied.

When you put on a mindset of generosity, you feel richer. Like I said, I’m a worrier. I tend to have that scarcity mindset, and I justify it by telling myself that I’m thinking wisely. But a generosity mindset offers true wisdom by putting things in perspective. Generosity says, “I don’t need to scrounge and hoard; we’re gonna be okay.” Generosity says, “I am truly blessed, and I have abundance—however small—to give to others.”

Scarcity and generosity aren’t just about money. This is truly important. When I started challenging myself to think generously, it bled into so many other things. I learned to think generously about my time: when someone asked me to take time to help them out with something, a generous mindset helped me feel more rich in time instead of fretting that I’d not have enough time to get other things done. A generosity mindset also helped me with forgiveness: it reminded me that there is so much grace and love to give, and I don’t have to be stingy with it. In my relationships, I don’t have to worry about keeping score, thinking, “well you did this, so I do that, and because I did that, you do this.” No, with a generosity mindset, I can be lavish in my relationships, and leave the emotional math at the door.

Thinking generously actually helped me be more disciplined. You’d think that being really generous would make for a less than happy bank account. But miraculously, that’s not the case. Thinking generously takes the desperation out of managing my resources; it shifts everything into perspective. I am free to make decisions based on the needs I have and the needs I want to help others with, instead of trying to scramble to prepare for a theoretical famine down the road.

It may sound like a lot of mind games, but getting in the mindset of abundance, rather than scarcity, truly makes me feel like I have more at my disposal. Because I feel richer (and not just in money), I feel satisfied, more taken care of, and more peaceful. When we realize that every blessing we have, whether it’s time, money, relationships, skills, etc., is a resource and a form of power, we can feel better equipped to use that power for good. We don’t have to feel like we’re at the mercy of these things; we can think generously, and give willingly and freely.

Soon we find that generosity never reduces what we have; it only multiplies it.

Ghost Hunting

Whenever I go to a new place, I look for its ghosts.

I don’t mean this literally. Some people actually go ghost hunting, and that’s fine I guess, but that would freak me out. No thanks.

No, the ghosts I look for are, ironically, a lot more concrete.

I grew up in western Pennsylvania, a place which, as my best friend once put it, is haunted. Flannery O’Connor’s South was Christ-haunted, but my western PA is self-haunted.

This is not in the sense that you literally see ghosts walking around, pushing carts at the grocery store, pumping your gas, or giving you directions to McDonald’s. (This may happen, but if it does please don’t tell me about it.) Western PA is haunted because it lives in the shadow of its own history. There’s a story behind the millions of wooded acres and crumbling brick storefronts. It’s one of a post-industrial area trying to survive past its original purpose.

pipes

It’s like when someone leaves a piece of carpet in the woods, and a whole ecosystem grows over it, vines and grass and clover, and you don’t notice what’s underneath until you start to question whether the ground truly is the real ground, and you start to peel up the edges of the carpet, ripping the life on top to shreds. What’s underneath is real, but forgotten, and sometimes it’s easier to forget. Sometimes it’s better to pretend that the carpet is the ground.

I grew up thinking it was normal to find rusty machinery in the woods, that every state park had a ghost town in it, and that all small towns were struggling and hopeless. It wasn’t until I moved away, traveled, and studied some history that I realized how remarkable and tragic these places really are.

steps

Now when we go home to visit, I realize how haunted it is, haunted by itself. I see a city block and know what it used to look like. I drive through woods and know how the hills used to be shaved of trees and dotted with oil derricks. I listen to the stories people tell of the good old days, and that lost society feels close enough to bring back, if we could just beat it at hide and seek.

And I feel the ghosts. Not literal, spiritual entities, but ghosts in the sense that there were layers upon layers of lives before mine who lived in these places and called them home. Layers upon layers of eyes looking at the same things I see, layers of thoughts pondering the same things I think about, layers of joy and love and anger and frustration like I feel.

All those layers, all that history, all that life, builds up until going home feels so thick with stories I have to cut a path through them just to find my parents’ house.

wood

The funny thing is, I can no longer go somewhere new without knowing the place’s ghosts. When I know I’m visiting a new place, I must do two things: look up the map, and look up the history. I must be able to mentally, as well as physically, find myself around.

Sometimes I’m not homesick; I just don’t know the local ghosts.

trees

It sounds weird, or at the very least exhausting. That’s okay; it is both those things. But the best part about ghost hunting is it reminds me that life is made of stories. If we don’t seek out the stories, if we don’t look for the ghosts, they’ll be forgotten. Huge chunks of life will be forgotten.

And that’s why, I think, you have places like western PA. When we forget our ghosts, we get places that are little more than haunted, overgrown carpets in the woods, thick with layers of history that people live in, feeling overwhelmed or hopeless with no idea why. That’s why you have small towns where a whole life and society is built on forgetting. Remembering is exhausting.

But as a writer, I know my craft is one of remembrance. It’s my job to learn as much as I can, to choose not to forget. It’s my job to get down all the stories, all the chunks of life, we forget as the years go by and the world moves on.

It’s my job to tear up the carpet, shred up the turf, and look for the ghosts.