This time last year I was sitting in a narrow, second-story classroom, down a winding side street in Pune, India. Seated next to the window, I could feel the warm breeze from outside and heard the rickshaws whirring on the street below. I leaned my head against the window, across the alley way a cat was perched peacefully on the windowsill. Our teacher settled into her chair to tell us the story of Annapurna.
"The legend of Annapurna," she began, "is one of most important narratives for women in the Indian canon. She's seen as the ideal mother and wife: the definition of generous and selfless. What every 'good Hindu woman' should strive to be." She raised her eyebrows, throwing her fingers up into quotation marks every time she spoke of the good Hindu woman.
The story, she told us, was that Annapurna was a mother and a wife. As the summer days grew longer, food became scarce and Annapurna no longer had enough to feed her whole family. She prayed to the gods to bless her with more food. "It is not for me," she said. "It is for my family, I will be filled by the knowledge that they have eaten. I do not ask for myself."
When it came time for dinner, she was blessed with food enough to serve her sons and her husband heaping platefuls and she watched them patiently as they ate their fill. By the end of the meal there was nothing left for her plate, but like she promised she was filled by the knowledge that the stomachs of those she loved were full. This went on for days and weeks and as she grew weaker her family grew stronger, all because of her selfless prayers on their behalf.
In the context of my gender class, we talked about how this narrative is problematic for women. The ideal of Annapurna is still something many Indian wives still aspire to. Some of my friends in that second story classroom lived with families in which the women wouldn't eat at the table until the men were finished and all that remained were the scraps. The whole mindset raises a host of issues about how women value themselves and are valued by others. We discussed and debated those questions over the course of the semester, but something else about Annapurna bothered me.
Is that really what being selfless and generous looks like? I wondered. Does generosity have to take something of the giver? And if Annapurna's is ultimate generosity, how can the rest of us hope to measure up?
Since that time last year, I've graduated from college and packed up all my belongings to move to a Haitian orphanage. Here, I think I'm finally grasping at the answers to my questions. I'm beginning to understand what generosity really looks like.
Each night before the sun sets, I walk the rocky path to the village to visit with the girls and the toddlers before they go to sleep. The second I step through the gate I hear shouts of "Rachelle!" and see little bodies rounding the corners of the houses, full tilt, to be the first to reach me. The first toddler that makes it to my knees gets scooped up into my arms, the next I take by the hand, and a few straggling girls reach out a hand to hold onto my shirt and walk alongside me.
We ask each other about our days and I struggle to reply in broken Creole. I could spend hours there talking with them, listening to them, watching them play on the swing set and show me how they can go down the slide. They are so physical. I am constantly holding hands from the moment I walk in until the moment I leave. They want to know I am paying attention to them, that I haven't forgotten. That I am right there beside them.
They have a good life here compared to a lot of Haiti. They are fed each day, given a free education, occasionally receive new clothes, and live protected from a lot of dangers outside of our gates. When it comes down to it, though, orphans never get the same attention that most children their age should. They don't have a mother and father to watch them play games and ask them about their days. They don't have big brothers and sisters to pester them and be annoyed with their habits. So when I can give them just a little bit of that time, it means something special to them (and to me).
The French philosopher Simone Weil once said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
That's the generosity I've come to since I've been here. I think the most we can give to any person is our time, our attention, and our love. When we give those things we are being the most generous. As someone who works at a non-profit, I can attest to the value of money and material things. We never seem to have enough to go around and we literally cannot function without that material generosity of our donors. I don't mean to downplay that: that generosity is necessary in the world we live in too. But on the most basic level, I believe our time, our attention, and our love are really the only things that are wholly ours to give.
With the kids here, that comes easily. Kids need love and attention, I am happy to give it to them. It's not really selfless on my part. I feel good about it. I love spending time with them and I end up feeling fuller because of it. Generosity doesn't have to drain you or wear you down, it doesn't necessarily have to be Annapurna's struggle.
The trick of it is, though, that generosity does not just apply to people who it is easy to be generous to. Generosity is something you can show for each person you meet.
Ultimately, all any person wants is for their lives to be noticed. If you can be a witness to someone's life for an hour, if you can listen to their story, if you can hold a toddler in your lap and let them know they are all you're thinking about in the world for that moment, I believe that is the most generous thing you can do.
Fred Rogers said, “The greatest gift you ever give is your honest self.”
And ultimately that's all we have to give. I don't know what that says for the Annapurna tale. I like to imagine that having a mother that cared for them, witnessed their suffering and gave her time and energy to being with her family meant as much to them in the legend as the food she couldn't eat and the pounds she shed on their behalf.
I think we'd live in an altogether more generous world if we simply took our time, attention, and love and gave it to others. If we each took a few minutes out of our day to be a witness to someone else's life, I think we would be on the right track.
Rachel Vinciguerra is a recent college grad living and working at an orphanage in Haiti. She keeps a travel blog called The Penniless Traveler to grapple with the wide array of issues that seem to come up every time she travels. She doesn't know where she's headed with her life yet. For the time being she occupies herself by reading, writing, and listening to people's stories.
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