The bigger apple, or is it possible to be unreasonably generous?
Of all the things our parents tried to teach us, emotional intelligence was the one most important skill very few of us got a chance to learn.
According to my Mama, I used to be an intensely greedy toddler. Laughing, she would tell stories of me throwing fits on the playground if another child touched my toys. I didn’t find that story funny. In fact, it has been chasing my imagination over the years, — inspiring erratic and often misplaced bouts of generosity, in an attempt to overcompensate for that cringeworthy implanted memory. As an adult, I see giving and sharing as part of being a human; it’s safe to say I’ve come a long way from that hissy little hoarder. But sometimes I wonder if I get carried away with the idea of giving, — especially where energy, time and emotion is concerned. Is it possible to be unreasonably generous? When it comes at odds with one’s self-preservation, can generosity take on a role of a destructive force?
I grew up in the 90s in the post-Soviet mess of a country. I don’t remember much, but looking back and reading about that period, I am filled with horror and compassion towards the generation of my parents, — who, at the time, were pretty much as old as I am today, — trying to make sense of the tectonic shifts happening in every aspect of their lives — political, socio-economical, cultural. Everything they’d known growing up was now invalid. I was just starting school. What were they supposed to teach me? What world were they supposed to prepare me for, when their own had just collapsed on them, leaving so much rubble behind, that it would take more than a decade to crawl from underneath it? By the time the new Russia has found its identity and footing again, I was a grown up, — and I was gone. Everything that my parents and the Motherland managed to instil in me happened some time in between. In retrospect, a lot of my ideas surrounding the concept of giving, stem precisely from that blurry place.
Anyone who grew up in Russia is familiar with the whole “all the best for the guests” narrative that permeates Russian character and culture. Fancy china locked away in a cupboard, only to be taken out three times a year for the big holidays or when distant aunt so-and-so is visiting; a string of pearls your grandmother wants to be buried in, but wouldn’t wear while she is alive, because “It’s expensive”; a box of chocolates you’ve been told for weeks is reserved for a special occasion, only to be cracked open nonchalantly as soon as your father’s co-worker pops in for tea. And so on, all the nice things in life either forever postponed, or reserved for others, evidently more deserving. The idea that it’s ok for you to live a mediocre life, but a guest in your house should receive royal treatment seems just bizarre to me now. And yet, anything other than that would be deemed “inappropriate” where I come from. This so-called “Russian hospitality”, — a point of great pride to many Russians, — still exists and very much thrives. It is the art of fussing around your guests to the point of making them nauseated with discomfort for putting you out, even if they asked for little to none of your efforts. The more of your own comforts you sacrifice while you at it, the better host you are.
By the similar logic, as a child I was always taught to share the bigger apple with a friend and keep the smaller one for myself. Fine as an isolated lesson on being nice, perhaps, — but as a repeated doctrine it is only a few formative years away from a lifetime of putting yourself second place. That apple comes in many forms: a night out when you really want a night in, because you “promised”; a commitment to something you have zero interest in, because you don’t want to disappoint whoever asked you; a downplay of your discomforts, because you don’t want to inconvenience anyone (“Seven don’t wait for one”, goes the old Russian saying); the worst room in a holiday villa, because you don’t want to be that person who fights up like a baby for the best one; a bar that is never your first choice, and a time that is never quite right for you, but you don’t want to come across as too particular, and besides your friend is always busy/has a baby/travelling soon/, so you should work around them. Small, non-crucial things, because you are a nice, accommodating person and you don’t mind.
But really, when you are crying on your bathroom floor for 6 hours for no apparent reason other than just being exhausted and sucked dry of your mental energy, — maybe it’s time to ask yourself if you actually do mind? If every single one of these small concessions to everyone in your life slowly rips away at the fabric of your self-care cocoon, creating invisible breaches, leaking life-sustaining oxygen until you suddenly suffocate? Maybe it’s time to not be afraid to come across as rude, inappropriate or greedy, and just start taking the bigger apple?.