I identify myself as a giving person.
I like being generous. It makes me incredibly happy to be in the role of the bountiful benefactor. Most often it's with people I know and love. But I also get a major kick out of offering small acts of generosity and kindness to whoever crosses my path on a given day.
But I have had to learn the hard way about truly joyful giving and the suffering that I can create for myself through my unconscious and automatic tendency to self sacrifice.
Which made me think about a pivotal incident in my life where I learned a huge lesson about the difference between the two.
A few years ago I was on a plane headed east from California to visit my family in Pittsburgh PA. It was a non-stop red eye flight that was approximately 5 hours and change.
The flight was not very full and I was thrilled to find that I was in a row of three seats all by myself. And given that it was a middle of the night flight I was looking forward to being able to stretch out along those seats and possibly even get some sleep.
Because the plane was half empty the flight attendants told people that they could choose where they wanted to sit and to change their assigned seats if they wanted to. A few rows in front of me there was a dark haired woman in her forties sitting next to a teenage girl who looked like she could be the woman's daughter.
They were also sitting in a row of three seats with one seat between them. When the stewardess announced that we were free to move around the woman and girl got up from their seats and headed my way. The woman stood at the end of my aisle and said to me " My daughter would like to sit here in this row."
At first I was dumbfounded. Flabbergasted. And in an inner whirl about how to respond to her request. On the one hand, the "authorities" on the plane had given permission for this. On the surface, it was not an unreasonable request. After all I had the whole row to myself. Who was I to think I deserved such bounty and good fortune?
The old me would have given in. I would have been more interested in being a "nice person" than potentially being seen as a selfish bitch.
But some part of me was having none of that old story. I looked the woman in the eye and with a big smile, said as nicely as possible " I'm sorry, but I am planning on using all three of these seats tonight, so I'm afraid that your daughter can't sit here."
The woman's eyes got very wide and she looked more than a little shocked. And very disapproving. And then without another word, she and her daughter turned around and stomped off away from me.
Just recently I was talking with a friend who was struggling around giving herself some things that she really wanted. She was longing for experiences that she had never had before that would cost money and time and wouldn't be about taking care of anybody else except for her.
And her biggest concern was the guilt she was sure she would end up feeling if she gave into her desire for these things that felt so extravagant.
I assured her that she might feel some guilt but it probably wouldn't be as bad as she feared. But I was not exactly telling the truth.
Because after I said "No" to this woman on the plane, after I kept a boundary around taking care of my own needs, the guilt I experienced was enormous. Excruciating. Almost unbearable. It was like a storm, an ocean, a typhoon of guilt induced agony.
I was overwhelmed with self remorse and self recrimination that was searingly painful as it permeated every cell of my being like white hot molten lava.
It was all I could do to not jump up and run over to the woman who made the request, apologizing profusely for being such a bad, self serving person and offering her daughter all three seats to herself while I slunk off to some other corner of the plane.
But I held off from taking any action based on a guilt induced frenzy. I chose instead to stay as present as possible to the inner whirlwind of thought and emotion.
And the big surprise to me was that the guilt orgy only lasted approximately 4.3 minutes.
At the end of that very short period of time the guilt subsided and it slowly dawned on me that I actually had exactly what I wanted. I could both proudly claim this small victory over my knee jerk tendency to self sacrifice as well as my own now hard won space on the plane.
I was just so happy that I could stretch out in the weird contorted comfort that you can only have sprawling over three plane seats. And I actually slept the whole time without a second thought about the woman and her daughter until the aircraft landed safely in Pittsburgh.
And this taught me a huge lesson about something that I have come to call emotional economics.
What I realized later that day was that if I had surrendered to the impulse to give myself away, if I had said yes to this request when every fiber of my being wanted to say no, I would have spent approximately 4.3 minutes basking in the glow of feeling like I was a very virtuous person and patting myself on the back about how amazingly generous I was.
And then the next 4 hours and 55.7 minutes would have been devoted to smoldering and fuming. Feeling resentful. Shooting undeserved daggers at the poor young woman sitting next to me. Obsessing and ruminating about how I didn't stand up for myself and I should have done it differently. Going over and over all the things I could have said.
Making up stories about the woman who made the request and casting her in the starring role as a self centered, entitled witch in this particular scene in the ongoing movie of my life. Being reminded of all the other times that I had done the exact same thing and kicking myself for not having learned this lesson yet.
How much sleep would I have gotten? Zero. My peace of mind would have been shot during the flight itself and I would probably have replayed this interaction in my head at least a hundred times over the next couple of days, feeling tinges of shame and self accusation every time I thought of it.
Not to mention the bad karma points I would have collected through engaging in hateful thoughts towards other sentient beings.
Up until now it's been hard for me to tell this story because even though I personally felt really good about how I dealt with the situation, I still carried a tinge of the guilt I experienced that night on the plane. And I feared that in telling this tale I would be judged by others as self centered and ungenerous.
But I am going on record here to say that at this point in my evolution, I'm just not that enlightened. And in the spirit of the radical self acceptance I am always trying to encourage in my students, I think that that's OK.
I learned a few things that night that have stayed with me to this day.
I now know that giving is only truly joyful when I actually have something to give. And when it's something that I whole heartedly want to give. And in terms of the emotional economics, something that I can emotionally afford to give.
I've also learned that joyful giving has to be joyful for me. It's not enough for me to make someone else feel good at my expense. It's not true joyful giving if I am left filled with seething resentment and homicidal fantasies.
I've learned that joyful giving involves my ability to say "No" as well as "Yes". And that having limits and boundaries is not a bad thing.
And that finally, joyful giving cannot leave me out of the equation. That charity begins at home. And that my ability to be generous has to always include my ability to be generous to my own sweet self.