In Toni and Slade Morrison’s retelling of The Ant and the Grasshopper the reader is left with the dilemma of how you respond to the needs of those who have given you non-tangible gifts. The Grasshopper, Foxy G in their tale, is driven by his craft to create music. He doesn’t reject preparing for the winter because he is shiftless or defiant, he feels compelled to make art. The music he creates provides the background music for Ant, Kid A, who works diligently to gather provisions for his family. Once winter comes, Foxy G finds himself without provisions. Desperate, he seeks help from his friend:
“I’m cold kid, with nothing to eat. My wings are freezing and I’m dead on my feet. I’m not going to make it out here with no heat. So, say, my friend. Can I come in?” asks Foxy G. We see Kid A munching on his “doughnut” smugly regarding his friend:
“You’re cold? Hungry? No place to stay? Look at you, man. What, can I say? I planned ahead and stored up things. You wasted time on those funky wings.” Kid A was very self-righteous about his planning ahead and sacrificing for the future so that he didn’t experience the deprivations of his friend. Morrison tells us that “Foxy tried to smile but it didn’t work. The tears in his eyes made him feel like a joke.” While the focus of the division between the friends centers on art, the conflict between deprivation and surplus emerges for me as an even more general frustration.
With deep remorse, I have seen this scenario up-close. The music that Kid A could just take, seemingly unaware of its tangible rewards, differs from what I saw. My friend Thomas, who recently passed away, gave people cars! He worked for Ford and he would co-sign for cars for “good” people who needed help but he also gave cars to people who were in need. At his funeral, people testified to how he knew that they struggled as single parents without vehicles and so he would show up at their homes with automobiles; nieces and nephews told of how he was responsible for them acquiring their first cars. Thomas, in fact, co-signed for my first car, a Ford Escort, that he also secured for me at an incredible discount. A few months before he passed, I visited him. My uncle had died and so I was in Cleveland in January to attend the funeral. I went next door to visit Thomas. His wife, Betty, was in the hospital and I had just missed his daughter who would be returning later to be with her father. As we sat and talked, I could almost feel how happy he was to have company; so I asked him about his visitors. “Do you get many visitors from your church,” I asked. I knew Thomas and Betty as deeply committed to their church and thought them much beloved so I figured he would have tons of guests. Thomas wanted to say yes, but then he said, “No, they don’t come by much. Or call.” Thomas had never been much of a talker, but he was on that gray, cold, snowy evening. He went on to catalogue the tithes that he paid, the carpet that he laid down and the air conditioning that he personally paid to have installed in the church but how in return, he had received scarcely a visitor or even a telephone call from either the leaders or the parishioners in the church. It was a painful discussion. Thomas had always been exceedingly generous.
I am among the many people who would have described him as financially comfortable. What was impressive about he and Betty’s money is that it was tempered by great humility. They lived in the same house for over thirty years; they gardened; they shopped locally; they used cash; they took their meals at home; they stayed home; they saved; they gave. They were simple, frugal people; quite remarkable. I wanted to voice that to him as he sadly recounted the ways that people became unavailable to visit with he and Betty.
When Thomas passed away this summer, his funeral became an extension of the righteous way people took from him. He and his sister died within hours of one another and so they were given a common funeral. The funeral wound up being a shameful tribute to Thomas. His daughter was led to believe that it would in fact be a service commemorating both her aunt and her father but it became an event that extolled his sister and only nodded to Thomas. In fact, I was the only one on the program scheduled to speak on his behalf. At one point, Tammie, went to the podium and told everyone how troubled she was at the tribute being paid to her father and asked that the service conclude as quickly as possible. It was heartbreaking. Betty died four days after Thomas and Tammie did a wonderful job organizing a service that paid equal tribute to both her mother and father.
Thinking about how entitled people feel to take from Thomas and not pay respect and tribute to him has deeply affected me. Sometimes I wonder if people think that giving is free for the one who dispenses; that somehow it doesn’t cost them anything or that it doesn’t come as a sacrifice, but what they give is necessarily extra. Like Thomas, I have given to people who I watched take with a sense of entitlement that I found shocking. And like Thomas, I didn’t stop giving all together, but I stopped giving to those people in the way that I once had.
It also seems to me that some people look upon giving as weakness. From this perspective, giving marks an urge to please. People seem to imagine that you are in fact giving to them because you want to be their friend. Giving is seen as pandering. It’s a troubling perspective.
I have an uncle whose generosity has also been taken for granted. In his case, people presumed that he did not care about anything so it was fine to take things from him without feeling any sense of obligation to him. As his body is beginning to fail him, he appears to be in the company of people with short memories.