Freshman year of college in New York State, I spent one break visiting my then-girlfriend at her home in Oregon. We’d met in college, and this was my first of what would become many visits to the Pacific Northwest.
Her family lived in a suburb outside Portland. One day of my visit we drove to the Pacific coast. Along the way she pulled the car into a popular roadside ice cream stand, handed me a ten dollar bill, and I popped inside to get us his and hers ice cream cones. Except that I paid for the treat with cash from my own wallet.
When I returned to the car, I handed her an ice cream cone … and her ten dollar bill back. And she was rightly incredulous, insulted, and perhaps above all, frustrated. Her exact words escape my memory, but were something like “This was supposed to be my treat. Why couldn’t you let me do this for you?”
She was right. I was on her turf, in her state, visiting her favorite haunts. Buying us ice cream cones was a simple act of generosity and sharing. Yet I didn’t accept it. Instead, I squashed it in the name of an immature, superficial idea of what it meant for a guy to be chivalrous. In holding strictly to the idea of “the guy always pays,” I’d forfeited something much more important: accepting the generosity of another.
This story of who did or didn’t pay for two ice cream cones nearly 20 years ago might seem trivial, and in some respects it is. I suspect she might not even remember the exchange. But for me, it was a decisive turning point in my own personal learning to accept the generosity of others.
Accepting generosity is a special thing. It is not the same as charity, though they can be related. And it is not done with the expectation or obligation of reciprocity. Life is not a zero sum game. Or a tally sheet. Or a log of karmic debts and obligations.
The most satisfying moments that weave a life together are the ones in which we give generously, receive generously, and share generously. There’s magic in giving and receiving with no strings attached. It makes life relational rather than transactional. That’s the crux of living, and nothing drives this home more than food.
It’s one thing to treat a coworker to lunch or a cup of coffee or a happy hour drink, expecting that at some point in the future he or she will do the same for you. But it’s quite another thing to simply prepare and share a meal with another person … just because.
Sharing meals—including the spoils of a harvest or a hunt or both, or inviting a weary traveler in for a cup of hot tea—was one of the first acts of human generosity. It remains one of the most important.
Following that exchange outside an Oregon ice cream stand, it took me years to learn to truly accept the generosity of others. In some ways, I’m still learning to do it. I’m the kind of guy who likes to do things for himself. But I have learned to give and receive meals generously. Each day offers us opportunities to embrace that possibility. Seize it.