The Half-Life Of A Generous Spirit

Like most Americans, I grew up needing for nothing.  Oh, there was plenty that I wanted, but actual needs? Nothing. 

Until I was old enough to work and, thus, earn my own money, wants were generally addressed at Christmas and Birthdays.  There was, of course, the occasional desert, usually after dinner on Saturday or Sunday. 

In a family with five hungry males , an informal rule developed whereby nobody would take the last piece of pie, cake, or whatever desert Mom had made, lest he risk being subjected to ridicule.  In practice, of course, the “last piece” merely got smaller and smaller as it was cut in half and half again until it became a morsel so small that no one would really mind it being taken.

On the one hand, this practice taught each of us children to “share and share” alike, to curb our “greed” somewhat, and to consider other people.  But, again, we were dealing with desert….a luxury that was provided by Mom. 

In a home without any real needs, the next lesson addressed other “wants”.   Growing boys eat a lot.  Mom cooked three squares a day, hot breakfast, packed school lunches and dinners ample enough for seconds.  That after-school snack and late-night snack were often meals in of themselves, but Mom wasn’t preparing them for us.  

Our instructions were to clean up after ourselves and, if we needed help learning how to prepare something Mom was always available to teach us.  My first cooking lessons came from these opportunities.  My brothers, never satisfied with those shrinking last pieces of cake, actually learned to bake.  One became good enough to bake his own wedding cake.

These are small examples, but they were important lessons about both taming our appetites and channeling our desires into actual productive work.  Believe me when I tell you that these sorts of lessons extended well beyond the dinner table over time to include chores, college tuition, buying our first cars, etc.  It seems, like that last piece of cake, there was always a “half-life” to our parent’s generosity.

This process, though it was geared to our “wants”, actually prepared us for the real world hardship of taking care of our own needs as well.  It worked quite a bit like the old wisdom of “teaching a man to fish”.  In practical terms, it was “give a man a reason to want to fish”. 

In the real world, we were taught, you don’t even get to the “wants” in life until you’ve covered your “needs”.  As we matured, there were fewer and fewer shortcuts to our “wants” until, like dogs pulling on the leash we were eager to be set free to cover the whole load.  How else were those wants to ever be achieved?

In retrospect, our parents were both generous and wise with the abundance at their disposal.  Why, they even gave us luggage when we graduated from high school.  I’m still wondering what that was all about.

Harry Tuttle




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