Dancing the waltz

Anais Nin and Henry Miller

I will admit that I spend more time on the Internet these days (and I didn’t know that was even possible) since the work site I have been assigned to won’t open until September 1 and it’s back to being a bloody inferno outside.  Because I have so much time to surf, I fortuitously encounter different articles from divergent sources that somehow overlap or coincide, amplifying each other’s message and causing the information to echo through my brain for several days.

Here’s one example.  On Monday morning I received my weekly newsletter from Brain Pickings, a website I highly recommend if you want to be served a veritable smorgasbord of interesting information dipping into such varied topics as art, design, science, technology, philosophy, history, politics, psychology, sociology, ecology, and anthropology.  There was a piece culled from the third volume of Anais Nin’s diary, wherein she transcribed a letter written to her by Henry Miller. He is describing the synergy of altruism:

“For me it is no problem to depend on others. I am always curious to see how far people will go, how big a test one can put them to.

Certainly there are humiliations involved, but aren’t these humiliations due rather to our limitations? Isn’t it merely our pride which suffers? It’s only when we demand that we are hurt. I, who have been helped so much by others, I ought to know something of the duties of the receiver. It’s so much easier to be on the giving side. To receive is much harder — one actually has to be more delicate, if I may say so. One has to help people to be more generous. By receiving from others, by letting them help you, you really aid them to become bigger, more generous, more magnanimous. You do them a service.

And then finally, no one likes to do either one or the other alone. We all try to give and take, to the best of our powers. It’s only because giving is so much associated with material things that receiving looks bad. It would be a terrible calamity for the world if we eliminated the beggar. The beggar is just as important in the scheme of things as the giver. If begging were ever eliminated God help us if there should no longer be a need to appeal to some other human being, to make him give of his riches. Of what good abundance then? Must we not become strong in order to help, rich in order to give and so on? How will these fundamental aspects of life ever change?”

Miller manages to make so many points here pertinent to my situation in Moldova that I wonder if perhaps he’s been peeking over my shoulder some days from wherever his juicy spirit happens to be oozing right now.

Peace Corps Volunteers – in all countries where we serve, I would venture to say – are involved in a delicate dance with their host country nationals.  We are giving to them, of our time, our expertise, our education, our energy.  But they are reciprocating: they are opening their homes and work places, teaching us their language and customs, sharing their food and wine, welcoming us in to important life events and celebrations, such as weddings, baptisms, and funerals.  Think about how difficult it might be to have a stranger show up at your door one day for a two year visit – one who does not know your language or cultural norms, much less recognize or respect your little idiosyncratic daily routines.  You need to familiarize them with your town, where the market is, the bank, the pharmacy, who the neighbors are and which places maybe dangerous or unsafe after dark. You need to show them where they can buy a hair dryer and how to hand wash their clothes.  Perhaps they don’t know how cook.  Or make a bed.  Maybe they are messy – even dirty, tracking mud throughout your home when they keep forgetting to remove their shoes at the door.

Then think about including this person into all your most emotional and memorable family events, taking them to your sister’s birthday party, your daughter’s graduation, your niece’s wedding, your father’s funeral, and having to watch out after them the whole time so they don’t do something culturally inappropriate like slap your aunt on the back or hug your brother when they are introduced or collapse on the ground in a heap if they’ve danced too hard or had one too many vodkas.  One must possess a true wealth of spirit and a large portion of patience to continue giving of oneself through those (perhaps seemingly endless) two years.

I won’t go into detail, but I did hear one story from a volunteer who was disrobed, bathed and cleaned like a baby, put to bed in crisp sheets, and had the bathroom swabbed of her mess after a bout of giardia that had her spewing from both ends.  (Did I mention there was no toilet – only a flimsy trash can – in said bathroom?)  And this all took place within minutes of her meeting her host parents. And the father was just as solicitous and nurturing as the mother. So there is definitely give and take going on here.

And this odd waltz can take place precisely because of the manner in which Peace Corps operates: it is coordinated and supported aid that doesn’t involve giving money to the “needy” – it is all about extending a hand of service within an intimate context that allows both the giver and receiver to participate fully in the exchange and to take the lead at different times.  And that hand can be extended by anyone – rich or poor, educated or ignorant, male or female, old or young, privileged or needy.  We can all be generous in spirit, in caring, in listening, in sharing, in inclusion, in opening ourselves to each other.

So after having had this Miller piece slosh around in my head for a couple of hours, I happened upon the following story on the NPR website about a new study published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy:

Study Reveals The Geography of Charitable Giving

For those of you who can’t bear to leave my scintillating expository, I extract a few pertinent quotes here:

Ever wonder how charitable the people are who live in your state or community? It turns out that lower-income people tend to donate a much bigger share of their discretionary incomes than wealthier people do. And rich people are more generous when they live among those who aren’t so rich.

…. High-income people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods give more on average than high-income people who live in wealthier neighborhoods.

Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that’s consistent with what he’s found in years of research on income and giving.

“The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become,” he says. “Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see,” he says.

The NPR article concluded that it is important people see need first hand by integrating into heterogeneous neighborhoods that are economically diverse.  And I would amplify that thought by saying this is true not merely because those who see need will tend to be more generous, but because it is imperative that we allow the osmosis, the synergy, the waltz of generosity to be fully and deeply expressed by both the giver and the receiver.  And that can only happen when we are not isolated from each other, when we become part of the fabric of each other’s lives, when our homes and neighborhoods and customs and idiosyncratic behaviors are no longer “foreign” to each other.  I love Peace Corps for illustrating the truth of this, each and every day, all over the world, amongst thousands of dancing partners.

There are merits to playing both roles, to attaining the flexibility and humility to both lead and be led. We Americans must realize that the money and material goods some of hold in relative abundance are not the only sources of wealth that exist in this the world.  And that, perhaps, a much greater gift is presented sometimes by standing in the role of receiver.

I know most of you out there are not going to run out and join the Peace Corps.  But realize that you can give by receiving, too.  By stopping to talk to that person asking you for money on the corner, allowing him to tell you his story.  By accepting the dinner invitation from the couple that bores you to tears and just keeping your heart and mind open for a few hours.  Perhaps through attending the dance rehearsal of your next door neighbor’s granddaughter and clapping vigorously and enthusiastically.  Or going to the ethnic festival in your community center and participating in the dances, eating the food, and intermingling with people from diverse backgrounds.

Try putting yourself in places you normally avoid, meeting people that unnerve you just a bit, stepping outside of your comfort zone and risking humiliation by joining in the waltz maybe once or twice a week, all in the spirit of dancing.  Go ahead: I challenge you.  I’m doing it.

(And I’d love to hear any comments on what it felt like …)

2 thoughts on “Dancing the waltz

  1. Powerful observations. The courage we model by stepping out of our own comfort zone is an inspiration to those around us. And it is rocket fuel in our own engines. We change others by modeling courage. And we are ourselves forever changed. Your modeling might make others join the Peace Corps, or just give them the inspiration to reach out to the ones they do not understand or like in their own lives. Or maybe help them to model courageous behavior wherever they are. And sometimes the bravest act is just slowing down and showing love.


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