Being the Right One: Reflections on Generosity

Martin J. Hagan

 

The following is the text of the Keynote Red Mass Address delivered by Martin J. Hagan at the 40th Annual Red Mass, Co-sponsored by the Diocese of Greensburg and Saint Vincent Archabbey

Your Excellency Bishop Brandt, Father Archabbot Nowicki, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Bench and Bar —

The Red Mass is an occasion I look forward to every year. It is an opportunity for me to step back from my everyday routine and reflect and take stock of my life. Since I come to the Red Mass from a busy day at my law office, my “reflections” typically start with my mulling over that day’s problems and frustrations. Soon my prayers become a list of “wish for’s,” as in “I wish for more clients, more income, more success, more appreciation from others.” I hit bottom when I start comparing myself to others – “Why will I never be another F. Lee Bailey? And really, what do those hot-shot lawyers who advertise on TV got that I don’t?”

In my better moments, when I’m not caught up in feelings of irritation or envy, what I really pray for is a sense of purpose in my life, a guiding star that could give it meaning and direction.

The book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People makes some good points on developing this sense of direction. One of its habits is to “Start With the End in Mind.” We are invited to imagine that three years from now we will be attending our own funeral. At the service four persons will be speaking about us. The first will be a member of our family; the second, a friend who knew our personal qualities; the third will be someone from our work or profession; and the fourth, someone from our church or community group where we were involved in service. We are then asked to imagine what we would want each of these persons to say about us. What would it be about me – what qualities did I have, what contributions did I make – that I would want them to remember me by, that would have made a difference in their lives? The point of this exercise is to identify those values and qualities that mean the most to me, and then to use them as a guide in how I live out each day.

If I did this exercise, I would hope that the one quality all the speakers would note was my generosity. We cannot all be as brilliant, or as wealthy, or as successful as we would like, but all of us are capable of being generous.

How do I define generosity?  To me it is fundamentally an attitude, a way of being with other people. To paraphrase Paul’s description of love in First Corinthians,

● A generous person is patient and kind.

● The generous person does not envy, does not boast, is not proud.

● The generous person is not rude, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs.

I would add that a special mark of generosity in a lawyer is that he or she is a good listener. The generous lawyer refrains from rendering too quickly his or her opinion on what the client should do, and takes the time to actively listen to the client’s concerns, not only the ones they articulate but also those they are perhaps not even conscious of themselves.  In many cases, such as disputes between family members, the lawyer’s most effective role may be to ask the right questions that will allow the client to clarify and prioritize his or her own objectives, so that the final decision on a course of action ends up being based on the client’s own choices rather than a lawyer’s direction.

Perhaps the best measure of generosity for a lawyer is how we are generous with our time. When I try to define generosity, it is especially with regard to the use of time. Time is a precious commodity in a lawyer’s life. It, along with our advice, is what we have to sell. We can never have enough of it. Being generous in the use of our time is how we as lawyers can contribute to the good of society. There are countless groups that need a lawyer’s special skills. Personally I have served on boards of non-profits, and have acted as counsel for a community group in the Central North Side of Pittsburgh that is devoted to giving low-income people an opportunity to own their own homes. There is a great sense of accomplishment in spending my time as a lawyer in helping these worthy causes.

But there are two activities that I have been involved in – being part of the marriage preparation team at our parish and foster parenting – that have really stood out for me. Why are they different from the others?

First, I do them both with my wife, Susan. Practicing law itself takes me away from my family. Doing volunteer work on my own, no matter how good the cause, would mean even more time away from my spouse. Being involved in activities together means that we spend quality time as a couple.

The second reason these two activities are special is because how much I have received from them. I often hear people say “I want to give back” when describing why they volunteer. But that phrase implies it’s a one-way street – where the volunteer does all the giving, with no “getting back” in return. That does not describe my experience, for I can honestly say that with marriage preparation and foster parenting I have received much more than I have ever given.

Staying involved in marriage preparation programs since our six-month anniversary is the best thing that Susan and I have done for our own marriage. Twice a year, as members of a team of married couples, we spend several evenings with engaged couples who are preparing for marriage, and present talks on topics such as communications, conflict resolution, finances, sexuality, parenthood, and the spirituality of marriage. The same insights and guidelines for growth in marriage that we share with the engaged couples we continue to apply to our own marriage.  Developing the skills of good communications and conflict resolution, understanding how our families of origin have ingrained in us attitudes and behaviors that are so deep we may not even be aware of their influence – our involvement in marriage preparation has given us invaluable help in building up our own marriage.

Marriage preparation has also given me opportunities for personal growth that I never would have otherwise had. One occasion in particular stands out for me. Susan and I were invited to attend a program on family life that was jointly sponsored by our diocese and a Jewish group devoted to marriage and family. We heard several speakers that evening, including a rabbi who shared with us his experiences of counseling couples considering or preparing for marriage.

He spoke particularly of a young man who had come to him in turmoil. For several years this young man had been looking for the “right one” to marry and raise a family with, but so far none of the young ladies he had dated had been that “right one.” Recently, however, he had been seeing one young woman and found that they shared similar values and had many of the same interests. He was quite attracted to her, but still he was unsure. He asked the rabbi “Should I continue to date other women? Maybe there is someone else out there who would make me even happier. How can I be certain she is the right one for me?”

The rabbi said to us that night: “I told this young man, ‘She will be the right one for you if you will be the right one for her.’”

There was such wisdom in that remark, not only as it pertains to a marriage partner but to every relationship in our lives, that the rabbi’s talk that evening was like a shaft of light piercing a fog in my soul.  In the intervening months and years I have found myself coming back again and again to that story, wanting to dig ever deeper into its meaning.

Be the right one!

How much of our unhappiness is caused by the expectations and demands that we impose – perhaps even unconsciously – on other people, whether they be our spouses, our children, or our partners and co-workers? In our self-centeredness, we sit back and wait for others to please us and satisfy our needs. Or we expect them to measure up to an “ideal” of spouse, child, or partner that we have conjured up in our minds, and feel disappointed when they fall short.

How many marriages end because one spouse can’t get past these feelings of disappointment and disenchantment?  And how many relationships fail because one party won’t let go of wounded feelings from some past slight or offense?  In their pride they wait in vain for the other one to change, or to make the first move towards reconciliation or apology, until the relationship itself has died.

I think that the moral of the rabbi’s story is “What we hope to receive we first must be willing to give.” Rather than expecting the other person – your spouse, your children, your friends or co-workers – to satisfy your needs, start with yourself. You be the right one for them!  If you wish your spouse or children showed you more affection, be affectionate to them!  If you want your friends or clients or partners to appreciate what you do for them, show how much you appreciate them!

My time devoted to marriage preparation brought me to that evening where I found a “pearl of great value” that has remained with me and become a source of inspiration and direction in my life.

 

Susan and I have been serving as foster parents through the Children’s Home of Pittsburgh since 2001. We take in newborns directly from the hospital and care for them until either the birth mother is ready to parent or the baby is placed with an adopting family. Babies are usually with us for several months at a time.

Foster parenting has brought us into contact with many people whose own generosity has been awe-inspiring. I have received from them powerful lessons on what it means to be generous. First there are the birth mothers we have met. Their generosity is evident from the outset by their choice to carry their babies to term, when another option was always available to them. Some birth mothers choose to parent, knowing that as single moms they will be shouldering all the responsibilities as both sole bread-winner and sole care-giver. Other birth mothers show a different kind of generosity by choosing to give up their child for adoption, deciding that their child will have better opportunities being raised by an adoptive family than what they could provide. They choose that course for their child knowing they will have to endure the looks and comments of family and friends who will say: “How could any mother ever give up her baby?”

Second, we have witnessed the special generosity of adopting couples. As part of the placement process, Susan and I will spend a day or two with the adopting couple at our home so that they can learn the baby’s eating and sleeping habits, and the baby can get used to them. While we are teaching the couple how to change a diaper and burp the baby, they begin to open up and share with us their journey that has led them to accepting this child.

The journey usually started with their decision to have a baby; their fertility was something they took for granted. What followed, however, was the disappointment of months or even years spent trying – and failing – to conceive, or perhaps suffering one or more miscarriages. Next came the fertility doctors and use of expensive reproductive technologies, again unsuccessfully. The final stage of their journey was coming to the realization that they were meant to welcome another person’s child into their lives as their own, and that this was God’s plan for them.

We have been invited by some adopting couples to attend first birthday parties for our former foster babies, and have seen the generosity of their extended families, who have welcomed a child, perhaps of a different race or with physical or mental disabilities, into their families and treat them as one of their own.

We have benefited from our involvement with foster parenting because it has made us realize the capacity for selfless love that people are capable of, even when confronted with events they did not initially choose, or emerging from a period of disappointment and loss.

At this point you may ask where is my Catholic faith in all this? How does generosity tie in with faith?

The Second Vatican Council was in session as I was entering high school, and its changes were gradually implemented during my college years and later. My children have asked me what it was like being a Catholic prior to Vatican II as compared to now. For me the biggest difference is that back then I had a powerful sense of belonging to two separate and distinct worlds. Part of that was because I attended only parochial schools, played sports in the CYO league, and could not eat meat on Fridays. Being a Catholic was a badge that set me apart from the rest of society.

But in a deeper sense I firmly believed in the existence of two separate and opposite realities -– what I would call the worlds of the “sacred” and the “secular.”  The “sacred” was the world of the Church, as most richly experienced at my parish where as an altar boy I was part of the pageantry of the Mass. Going from the cold, grey streets of the upstate New York town where I grew up into my parish church to serve morning Mass, I would encounter a feast for the senses – the sights of stained glass and the gleaming gold of candlesticks and chalices, the smells of wine and incense, and the sounds of organ, bells, Gregorian chant, and the eternal-sounding cadences of Latin –  Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meam.  What a wondrous world that was!

In contrast to this sacred world, there was the secular world that had its diversions like TV, sports, and pop music, but mostly consisted of the plain everyday routine of school, daily chores, and jobs.

Between these two realities, I believed that God was present only in the sacred. To find God, to be with God, I had to leave – mentally if not physically – the secular world, and enter into the world of the sacred. We lived in a vale of tears; God was high on the mountaintop.

The bishops at Vatican II, particularly in their pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world, Gaudium et Spes, offered a whole new way of seeing the world and locating God’s presence within it. Their vision gradually came to replace the attitudes and beliefs I had acquired as a child and young man.

For me now, there is no longer a “sacred” world that exists separate and apart from the secular.  There is only one world, the world I live in every day, where I cannot help but encounter other people — family members, clients, colleagues, strangers — and am called to respond.  Of course, I can ignore them.  I can be so distracted or caught up in myself -– or still looking to the horizon, nostalgic for the sacred that would take me away from the dull routine and repetition of daily life -– that I may not even notice other people or be aware of their needs.  But there is no escaping the call.

I still experience a sense of the sacred, but I find it only in the here-and-now, within my relationships with others and in being present to those whom I encounter in my life. What I call sacred now are the moments of grace I experience when I can let go of grudges and resentments, or when I can work through feelings of disappointment or hurt and choose to love. The sacred does not exist as a separate, static world; the sacred happens.

Here the passage in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, where the Son of man comes on the last day as a shepherd to separate his sheep from goats, teaches a sobering lesson.  What is most startling about this scene is that both those set on his right and those on his left seem genuinely surprised at the standard by which they’ve been judged. The former didn’t realize they were doing anything for God; they were simply responding to those most in need. They didn’t grasp the eternal implications of their generosity. As for the latter, we can hear the indignation in their voices – “Lord, how can you say that I did not feed you, or did not clothe you, or did not visit you? If I had seen you there, you know I would have done all those things for you. But I never saw you, Lord. You weren’t there!” They are answered, “When you failed to do those things for the least of your brothers and sisters, you failed to do them for me.”  Their offense, their mistake, was in not being aware.

For me the lesson of this passage, leaving aside its unholy vindictiveness, is that God is not just on the mountaintop. He is present in my everyday life, in places – embodied in persons – where I might least expect Him.

May we be aware of those whom we encounter in our lives, and may we be generous in responding to their needs. And especially in those difficult situations where we are tempted to turn away or hold back, may we have the courage to be the right one.