Bad Advice Wednesday: Be Relentlessly Generous

categories: Bad Advice / Cocktail Hour


Dave, Suzanne, Judy, Andy, Eve, Christine, at Doe Branch [photo Bill Roorbach]

When I look back on the last nine years, since my daughter’s birth, they are a blur.  I’m sure you know the feeling.  During this time my life changed not just because I became a father but because I became a teacher (as I wrote here-conflictedly–last week).  I started as a one term fill-in as a Briggs Copeland at Harvard, and then moved down here to become a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.I wanted to be a good Dad, husband, and teacher, for sure, but there was also the little matter of the books I hoped to write (and the cartoons I wanted to draw).  I didn’t know I was also about to start a magazine called Ecotone, or that I’d start to feel some ownership for the department I worked in.  What I did know, as Nina and I drove south with a three month old in tow, was that the whole thing felt overwhelming.  So many new people, so many new places, so many new responsibilities.

But I also remembered, soon after we landed in our new home, something I had scribbled in my journal back in Cambridge, a note that would eventually appear in my book, Sick of Nature.  Here is what it said:

“Be relentlessly generous.”

Maybe “generous” was not the exactly right word.  I know I’m not Ghandi.  Even whether I’m at core a good person is up for grabs.  But I did and do know one thing.  Energy is finite, and I was entering a time when my own energy could be drained from all sides. One option, in the face of this, would be to shrivel.  What I was vowing, instead, was to throw my own energy outward.  Outward toward Hadley and Nina, outward toward school, outward toward students, outward toward books (which, not coicedentally, have become more outward-turned.)

I’m not saying it was a perfect plan or philosophy.  It was sloppy.  But the idea was basically to do everything. If someone needed something read I would read it, if someone needed something blurbed I would blurb it.  But at the same time I would get my own work done.  Did I grumble?  You bet.  But I also pushed outward.

A couple of years ago I wrote an essay for the Georgia Review, a response to a piece that Scott Russell Sanders had written.  Scott was espousing Thoreau’s core philosophy of “simplify.”  Simplicity is something I believe in, too, and something I hope to eventually achieve.  But I know that for the moment, and the foreseeable future, it isn’t for me.  In its stead I propose doing more than you can possibly do, doing too much.  It’s true that this path can lead to occasional moments of bad temper and gracelessness.  But it turns out you also get a whole fucking lot done.

The years have gone fast, but then they go fast no matter how you live them (see Mann’s Magic Mountain.)  But I think of them as good years.  The tally?  One nine year old daughter.  Five books.  Three unpublished books.  Hundreds of essays and stories. One magazine.  Oh, and a blog called Bill and Dave’s.

And now the age old question.  How does my narrative translate to your bad advice?  Well, I suppose it goes a little like this.  There are times in our lives when we have to do more than we think we can do.  So you throw yourself into it, and try, though you know you can’t do it all.  Sometimes you do too much and you wear yourself thin, maybe getting sick in body or spirit.  But sometimes, if you’re lucky, you expand yourself.  Your circle and circles become larger.  And sometimes, just as you have tried to help others, others suprprsingly help you.  So that’s today’s bad advice.  Be relentlessly generous.  Push at those boundaries.  See what happens.

Bill, Suzanne, Judy, Andy, Eve, Christine [Photo by Dave Gessner]

  1. Chris Henderson writes:

    Dave, we didn’t talk about this at Doe Run, but it fits my operating status to a T . As Andrea Q. wrote, ‘Thanks for validating…”.

    Do you ever get to feeling sorry for yourself? I get in those moods (they just take me for granted, think that I’ll do everything for them, etc.) But then, I always sign up for more! Just wondering…

  2. monica wood writes:

    Loved this one, buddy.

  3. Andrea Q. writes:

    Love this — and thank you for validating my choices (to take entirely too much on, all of the time).

  4. Rahul Dave writes:

    Beautiful Dave! Thanks!