May Sarton on Generosity
By Maria Popova
“Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you,” Annie Dillard wrote in her beautiful essay on generosity. “You open your safe and find ashes.” I feel this truth deeply, daily — for nearly two decades of offering these writings freely, I have lived by the generosity of strangers.
It is especially gratifying to perpetuate the spirit of generosity if you have arrived at the ability to do so by way of struggle and privation. No one takes more joy in giving than those who come from little.
In her sixtieth year, after decades of struggling to live by her pen as she went on channeling the human experience in her ravishing poems, Sarton finds herself at last solvent, and giddily so. Reflecting on her belief in the “free flow” of energy and means, she writes:
Both human problems and money flow out of this house very freely, and I believe that is good. At least, it has to do in both cases with a vision of life, with an ethos… I am always so astonished, after all the years when I had none, that I now have money to give away that sometimes I may speak of it out of sheer joy. No one who has inherited a fortune would ever do this, I suspect — noblesse oblige. No doubt it is shocking to some people. But I am really rather like a child who runs about saying, “Look at this treasure I found! I am going to give it to Peter, who is sad, or to Betty, who is sick.”
She offers a simple, lovely definition of wealth:
Being very rich so far as I am concerned is having a margin. The margin is being able to give.
Complement with John Steinbeck on the equally important art of receiving and Seneca on what it really means to be a generous human being, then revisit May Sarton on the cure for despair, the relationship between presence, solitude, and love, and the art of living alone.
Published November 7, 2023