Being a Catholic means hearing constant appeals for donations; but sometimes, we truly don’t have a lot to give. If we’re barely getting by ourselves, then as much as we’d like to write a cheque and solve everyone’s problems, we just can’t. The best we can do is to give the little we can, and make a promise to do more if our situation improve later.
The same is true for non-financial giving: Sometimes we’re tapped out, emotionally and psychologically. We’re barely keeping our heads above water, and it takes all our effort to get through the day without murdering anyone or falling apart completely. Sometimes there truly is no room for extra effort, nothing non-essential to give.
I lived that way for a long time, off and on. Raising 10 kids, being very poor, homeschooling, and managing health problems can take just about all the mental and emotional energy you have to give. But now my kids are older, my finances are more stable, my health is under control, and I find that I don’t have to live in survival mode anymore. I’m trying to shake myself out of survival habits, and remember that now that I have some extra to give, I really should try!
Here are some ways to be generous without spending a cent
Be generous with your time
We legitimately require time for ourselves, to get our work done and to have some restorative leisure. You don’t have to serve other people and neglect yourself until you’ve been stomped into a lifeless pulp. But very often, we can form that habit of being irritated to give even a few more minutes than we expect to someone else, whereas we’ll waste long swaths of time on fruitless, pointless things. We do have a choice about how to spend our time, and it’s good to assess it every once in a while, and see what proportion of it goes to other people, what goes to ourselves, and what just gets frittered away on nothing.
Be generous when you listen to people
It’s easy to be stingy when we hear someone else’s point of view. We might focus narrowly on the one part of their argument that seems weak, so we can attack it, but we ignore the strong or admirable parts they deserve credit for. We might be interpreting everything in the worst possible light. Or we might not be listening at all, but only waiting for them to stop so we can say what we want to say. These aren’t legitimate ways to encounter other people’s words. We should try to be generous as we listen, deliberately open our ears and hearts as an act of love.
Be generous with your assumptions about strangers
If you spot someone behaving badly — a kid having a tantrum, a parent flipping out, a driver hogging the road, a teenager being rude — it’s easy to assume they’re just failures or degenerates. But while it’s possible you’re seeing a true villain who has no desire to behave with basic decency, it’s just as possible you’re seeing someone who’s just lived through a terrible day; someone who suffers some invisible pain; someone who’s been trying very hard for a long time but is at the breaking point; or even someone who has a long way to go but has made huge progress already, and what you’re seeing is an upswing. Unless you’re on a jury, you’re not called to make a judgment, so try to retrain your mental habits by reminding yourself that you simply don’t know the whole story; and move along.
Be generous with your attention
When someone wants to talk to you, give them your full attention. Set aside your phone when you’re engaging with someone who’s physically present. Even if it’s only a polite exchange with a cashier who asks how you are today, take the extra millisecond’s worth of effort and really mean it when you ask in turn how they are. Even if it’s not some kind of profound or earth-shattering encounter, try to really be with the person you’re with.
Be generous with your courtesy
When the phone rings and you’re in a rush, pause for a moment before answering, and remember that the person on the other end is probably not responsible for whatever stress you’re under. Take a breath and resolve not to make their day worse just because you’re having a tough moment.
Be generous with other people’s sorrow
Sometimes, especially as parents or as spouses, we are tempted to rush other people past their negative emotions, either because we don’t want to deal with them, or because we care about them and hate to see them suffer. It is far more generous (and more useful) to allow people to feel what they feel. We should resist the urge to rush or pressure them to feel something more manageable, to ignore their emotions, to look on the bright side while it still feels very dark, or to skip ahead prematurely to healing. It’s a kindness to simply let people be.
Be generous with prayer
It’s very easy to pass over prayer requests on social media, or to pass over the obvious need of people we encounter, without ever lifting up our hearts to God and praying for each other. But being generous doesn’t necessarily mean huge quantities of elaborate prayers or a giant investment of time. It can mean stopping what you’re doing and praying immediately, rather than making a mental note to do it later; or setting aside animosity and praying sincerely, rather than only praying for people we like.
These are all things that Christians should be doing as a matter of course, but they are hard! I have found it useful to think of these behaviours as generosity, rather than just general character improvement or virtue building. It reminds me that I am giving from my own plenty, and not trying to make something out of nothing.