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November 26, 1996

Currencies of Generosity

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Generosity is deeper than money and wider than philanthropy.

When I was thirteen, my neighbor Mr. Cherry wanted his lawn mowed once a week. It wasn’t that the grass grew more quickly on Mr. Cherry’s yard than anywhere else in Biloxi, Mississippi, but who was I to argue? As a budding teenager whose sole source of income came from cutting grass (once every two weeks for most customers), I needed all the business I could get. Once a week was what Mr. Cherry wanted, and once a week was what he got, whether the lawn needed it or not.
Usually when I showed up to mow the grass, Mrs. Cherry welcomed me with a snack. (You can’t mow on an empty stomach, right?) And when I finished mowing, Mr. Cherry would came out and walked the lawn with me, pointing out such things as how I did a good job of trimming close to the flowerbed without damaging the flowers. If I came up short somehow, he’d point that out, too, and explain how I could have done it better. In the end he sometimes gave me a small bonus for my good work. Not a bad gig for a thirteen year old.
I was confused, though, one day when I happened to notice a nearly new lawn mower in Mr. Cherry’s garage. If he had that prime piece of grass-shortening equipment at hand, why did he need me and my beat-up old push mower? I didn’t understand it, and soon the question faded from my mind.
Years later, Mr. Cherry’s motives in hiring me became clearer to me. Sure, he enjoyed having a freshly cut, well-manicured lawn acquired without raising a bead of his own sweat, but he also knew that the boy from a couple of streets over who did the mowing came from a single-parent family that didn’t have much money. Bigger still, he saw some potential in the skinny kid who knocked on his door one day asking for summer work.
Mr. Cherry was, of course, giving me an income. But he was also giving me mentorship in doing a good job as a businessman (or businesskid, as was the case at the time). And he was giving me, at least for a short time once a week, a father figure in my life. Because he was a kind man, he was being generous to me in multiple lanes.

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