A Flashback Friday post from Friday, May 13, 2020

Free is a dangerous word, and worse, it’s a slippery concept. Why? Well, it opens the path for the abuse of generosity.

I didn’t always think this way. As a poor Folkie, I felt free was a significant force for redistribution in the universe. As a poor student, it helped me scrape by on limited resources. Nothing persuaded me otherwise until after grad school.

I was having lunch with Millie one day, and the abuse of free came up. Millie was one of those self-trained artists who couldn’t find limits. Well into her seventies at the time, she had yet to find a media or artistic style ( except maybe Cubism) at which she could not excel.

Millie was best known locally for her beautiful calligraphy. She did all the signs for all the functions of her local church. But, recently, there was just a bit too much labor in her labors of love. The minister asked her to do all the signs for a function. But, the date on the poster was wrong. Although it had not been Millie’s fault, she would have to redo all the signs. She offered to obscure the mistake, but the minister insisted on redoing all the posters.

The handwork involved in this was huge. Millie called the minister and told him that she would do one poster, and he should take it to the printer to have it duplicated. His critical mistake at this juncture was to tell her, ” No, I want them all by hand.”

Sitting where I was enjoying a cup of coffee with Millie, I had the chance to watch the changing emotions on her face. She loved her church and enjoyed supporting it. But she had finally grown resentful of having her generosity abused. There was a pause in her reply, and then she said to him, “well, OK, you better start doing them yourself because I’m too busy with other things to do them for you.” Click.

As we sat there, our conversation became a meditation on the abuse of generosity. I was feeling guilty too. I could barely count how many free projects Millie had done for the little cultural center I ran. But, for the minister, it must have been a watershed moment; Millie maintained her generosity to the church and community, but not to him.

It forced a reevaluation of what I returned in my relationships. Was free just a way for me to get something, well, for free? Or was I participating in a relationship where both parties were givers and receivers?

There are limits to most things, and expecting free forever and unlimited amounts is dangerous and disrespectful to expect from other humans.