When Lou Gehrig was five and growing up in poverty in New York City, his parents gave him a baseball glove for Christmas. We can easily imagine how stunned this little boy was at the magnanimity of this gift. And we can imagine his dilemma when he discovered that the glove they gave him fit his right hand—a glove for a lefty. Gehrig was a righty.
He decided not to complain, but instead, learned to play lefty.
This is character. Obviously.
But how did his parents “instill” this character in him? After knowing a couple of thousand children ages 3 to 14, I know the answer: Nothing. They did nothing to instill character, because all children are born with a character. Lou’s interactions with others (especially his parents) in his first five years taught him that generosity is a good discipline to use under circumstances like this.
Like Lou Gehrig, children want to be generous, as their parents are generous. Generosity is not a “character trait;” it’s a discipline, a habit of mind that helps you be the unique kharakter the gods meant you to be. Generosity is a skill you can use, a tool for making yourself into the person you want to be. Contrary to popular opinion, being generous is not “being good” or altruistic. Generous isn’t the kind of thing you need to be to get into heaven in some later life. Generosity is a mental technique you use to bring about heaven on earth now.
When Jesus said that the Kingdom is nigh at hand, he really meant it: right here, by your left hand, like an angel sitting on your left shoulder (right shoulder if you’re a lefty). All you have to do is shift out of the high gear of striving to accomplish what you think you have to accomplish today (like your Christmas shopping),
pull over to the side of the road, look up into the deep, dark sky and notice the moon that has been hanging there all night long brightening the white landscape at this darkest time of the year. You will notice that the Kingdom has been with you all along, but you were too busy to notice.
Yesterday, I was anxious about what I would write for this coming Sunday, December 21. I had already written two essays but didn’t feel good about either of them, even though there was nothing wrong with them. Then this morning I discovered this email that Kelly had sent me in the night:
“Yesterday London and I were chatting about Santa Claus. I asked her if she’d met him yet and had a chance to ask for what she wants for Xmas. ‘No, I don’t want to ask him for anything,’ she said. ‘I want him to bring me whatever he likes and I’ll be happy with that.’ So sweet and grateful!”
London is four-years-old. She hasn’t had the “character trait” of gratitude “instilled” in her; she has learned that gratitude feels good. “Magnanimous” means big of spirit. When we are generous and grateful, we become magnanimous, and when we are magnanimous our character manifests itself in the world the way it wants, which includes having graceful relationships. We feel whole, because we are.
Generosity and gratitude are not “values” or virtues that show others we are good and help us feel like we have a shot at heaven, but are disciplines—tools—that help us accomplish our goals, live the life our genius wants us to live and be whole (holy). Here’s the toolbox: Courage, persistence, authenticity, honesty, humility, forgiveness, charity, compassion, patience, trust, humor, perseverance, hope, awareness, tolerance, caution, cleanliness, courtesy, diligence, determination, faith, gratitude, friendliness, gentleness, kindness, generosity, simplicity, tact, inclusion, mindfulness. (I am sure I have left a few out, and I hope for a Christmas present you will email me your favorite. You don’t have to wrap it.) Moments of challenge (like being given the wrong thing for Christmas), are opportunities to practice a discipline or two in order to harmonize the various voices inside us and to harmonize ourselves with those around us.
There is an old rabbinical Midrash that goes something like this:
What’s the difference between heaven and hell? In hell there is a long wooden banquet table stretching as far as the eye can see in both directions. In front of each person at the table is a bowl of manna—the divine food—tasty and nutritious (today, we would say, local, organic and gluten free.) Tied to both arms are wooden spoons that make the arms stiff. Since the spoons extend about a foot beyond the hands, the inmates of hell frustrate themselves trying to feed themselves.
Merry Christmas and happy holy days on the longest night of the year.