Operation Generosity – an experiment in a different kind of love

Put Aside All Anxious Thoughts and Be at PeaceYesterday, I answered the call to transform Valentine’s Day into Generosity Day. I decided to hand out quotable cards and magnets to random strangers on my commute to work. I wrote inside the cards and on the envelopes “Happy Valentine’s Day – Share the Love!” and then used the envelopes for the magnets. Armed with my small bit of generosity booty, I left for work. Operation Generosity had begun.

It was a lot more difficult than I expected.

On the way to the metro, I didn’t pass a single soul. Then, near the metro, I spotted a group of teenagers walking to school. “They don’t look particularly interested,” I thought. Plus, there was a group of them, and I only had eight things to give. There’s a woman with a stroller…..who looks like her hands are quite full and she’s motoring pretty quickly. “Maybe I’ll give it to a metro worker,” I thought. “I’m sure they don’t get enough generosity in their jobs, as irritated as DC is with metro service.” But they were busy with…things. I don’t know.

I walked up to the metro platform, scanning the crowd for someone with whom I could be generous. Realizing this was a little more difficult – and more uncomfortable than I expected. I thought about the magnet I had kept for myself: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” Surprisingly, I found myself completely out of my comfort zone. Which means I have to do this.

I get on a metro train and sit next to an older woman. She sits quietly, staring straight ahead, with her hands trembling every so slightly in her lap. Ah-ha! I could give one to her! But then, doubt creeps in. What if she doesn’t want to talk? And then we have a long metro ride to go. I flip through the quotes, looking for the right one that might appeal to her. I look at the small print on the cards and notice the glasses around her neck. I sigh to myself. What if the print was too small? I wish I had a flower to give her instead. Next year, I’m picking a different generosity token. I look around the metro car, where 80% of us were absorbed in our smart phones or newspapers. The train was quiet. Handing out something on the car would make a scene, and I only had eight things to give and a lot of people around.

It struck me – this is exactly why love is so difficult. You want to give, but you’re afraid that you’ll be rejected. You’re afraid that you won’t be giving the right thing. You’re afraid you’ll make a scene. “Make a scene! Make a scene!” says a voice in my head. But I don’t. The morning metro commute culture of silence is too deeply ingrained in me.

My courage shrunk back. When I got off at my destination and went up the escalators, I was feeling pretty lame and desperate to find the right person – anyone. At the top of the escalator were the 4 newspaper workers handing out the Washington Post Express and the Washington Examiner. Ha! They hand out stuff all day – who gives anything back to them? Gleefully, I hand out four cards, one to each. They enthusiastically exclaim thank you and wish me a Happy Valentine’s Day. And then I realize – they’re possibly the most extroverted people on my morning commute. That was easy. That was the warm-up. I had to step it up.

Then I noticed a woman scowling, head slightly down, rushing in my direction. I thrust my arm out and hand her the envelope with a quotable magnet (I don’t know which one), and I exclaim, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” She slows, contorts her body slightly away from me, as if I’m trying to sell her some snake oil, scowls a little more. I keep my hand outstretched and she takes the envelope. You can tell she’s calculating that she can just throw the thing away later, if taking it will make me go away.

I keep walking and don’t look back. I don’t know if she changed her mind, if she liked the quote, if it meant anything to her. I don’t know if she threw it away or handed it to anyone else. All I know was that was way less fun than handing the card to the Newspaper Quartet. And I need to do it again.

The sidewalk down to my workplace is a very narrow super highway of hurried pedestrians. I spot another younger woman, frowning, concentrating downward. I thrust my hand out with another envelope and exclaim cheerfully, “Happy Valentine’s Day!” She, too, twists slightly away from me, looks up at me as if I’m crazy, decides whether or not she has to take the envelope. A guy skips around by us and looks back, taking in this scene. He’s got a wry smile on his face and appears completely amused. The woman reluctantly takes the envelope and I move on, not looking back.

I feel slightly bruised by now, the joy of the Newspaper Quartet having been replaced by the daggers of suspicion from the eyes of the hurried urbanites. I walk into the building and get in the elevator with one other person. I have two envelopes left. The man gets out of the elevator on a floor before mine and says “have a nice day” to me. So I extend an envelope out to him, “Happy Valentine’s Day,” I say, a little less enthusiastically than before. He smiles genuinely. “That’s so nice! Can I keep it?” I tell him he can keep it or pass it on, his choice. He glances at the quote and says he thinks he’ll keep it. He thanks me as the elevator door closes.

“Beginning today, treat everyone you meet as if they were going to be dead by midnight. Extend to them all the care, kindness, and understanding you can muster, and do it with no thought of any reward. Your life will never be the same again.” – Og Mandino

In the office, I recount my story to my two colleagues. I give the last magnet to one of them, but I don’t feel like this experiment is yet complete. I suggest that over lunch, we visit the flower vendor outside, but some flowers and hand them out one by one to people in the cafeteria. They think this is a splendid idea. As one o’clock rolls around, they remind me – “Hey! It’s time to visit the flower vendor!” We each buy 6 peach and pink roses.

Walking into the cafeteria, I find the first scowling, rushing person I can find. I get the familiar confused, resistant look, but the woman takes the rose anyway and hurries on. Why am I such a glutton for punishment? Because that used to be me. I am a recovering work-aholic, with no time or space in my life for this “frivolity.” Now, I’m on the road to becoming a work-a-frolic, a term I found in a TED talk about the Secrets to success in 8 words and 3 minutes. I find that by seeking out the scowling people, I’m giving generosity trinkets to my former self.

We find people sitting quietly, reading a book. We find cafeteria workers. We find people sitting in twos and start up a conversation. Someone tells us, “I didn’t think this place was that touchy-feely.”

It’s not. But we are. Happy Generosity Day!

Are you a workaholic? Be sure to read Brene Brown’s Love Note to the Workaholic.

2 thoughts on “Operation Generosity – an experiment in a different kind of love

  1. Wonderful, wonderful! I did something like this in high school, only we went up and rang people’s doorbells and gave them a dollar. It was definitely weird! I’m glad you did this. You’re still my hero!

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