The poet William Butler Yeats wrote of “feeling a poem in the marrow of his bones.” Yeats spoke to that moment when the poet from deep within joins the imagination and mystery of the creative process and the workings of the mind surge forward. The result is a 'gift' from the poet to the larger world. It is a gift of intimacy, and thus carries personal risk to the poet who sends it out into the world with great trepidation, with the earnest hope it will be understood, admired, and perhaps loved. A poem, like every form of art, aims to transcend the literal, the figurative and even spiritual. If it succeeds as mystery, and as imagination, than it is a rare gift indeed.
I think that the heart of the motivation for generosity comes from a very similar place within the individual. The yearning of the poet to write the poem, or the artist to paint the picture, is to say something important. The poet literally has no choice when the vision, the image, the insight, or the story becomes so compelling that the only option is to find expression. The yearning of the individual to find meaning in life, to be a good person, to find ways to 'say something' important about those things we care deeply about is just as powerful. You or I, when driven by great passion, also have no choice, we must act. The instinct is equally as deep within us as within the poet.
The difference is in the articulation, the poet writes a poem, and when it is finished, feels for that moment great satisfaction, feels complete. A kind of harmony is in the room, a sense of having risen to a demanding challenge, having done a good thing. The non-poet makes other kinds of gifts. They may be ideas, influence, credibility, advice, access, money or personal commitment for an hour or for a lifetime. They are whatever we have at hand. We makes these gifts for many reasons, because we are asked, because we are angry, because we want to cure a disease, because we see someone suffer, because we see something beautiful and want to preserve it, because we cannot live with something that is unjust. It comes out of our life experience and is based on our response and assessment of a need, and our realization that we can do something about it. It is what we call philanthropy.
Those gifts, like that of the poet, are launched into the public domain always with trepidation, and often with great risk. The rare gift, like the rare poem, is one of imagination and transcends the heart and the mind. When we have done a truly generous thing we too feel great satisfaction.
These are not new thoughts. I remember seeing the Kirk Douglas movie in the late 50s depicting the life of Vincent Van Gogh. It was at a time when I was young and raw and I was deeply moved by the depiction of Van Gogh’s tortured artistic drive. It was before I knew anything about the term BI-polar and certainly nothing about art but I cried over the sheer beauty and force of the creative process, how it both propelled and consumed the artist. It was not only Van Gogh’s fantastic sunflowers, more brilliant than the sun, that drew me in, it was the pain, the poignancy, the passion, the struggle for expression. That the art succeeded and the artist failed to find peace of mind only made the story more powerful. After all these years, the memory of that film still moves me. It was the revelation that out of vulnerability, out of a desperate life situation the artist was compelled, from the 'marrow of his bones’, to paint his pictures. It spoke to me with great force — there is a path of higher purpose in life, something that is excellent, something more than the 'I', something beyond the me and we are all irrevocably driven toward it. It has driven me, and I believe it drives you who are reading this piece.
The essential lesson is that the human spirit, vulnerable, insecure, limited, hurting, tentative, afraid, as it is remains indomitable. Perhaps that is what the arts do better than anything else. They turn us, with heightened sensibility to our own humanity, to the earth’s song in all of its joy, in all of its pain. I think that reaching out to others, giving back to society —generosity in all of its dimensions turns us in exactly the same way, but goes one step further.
The potential for creative and original thinking and action is all around us. It often lies just below the surface of the every day and with the right support can be stimulated, nurtured, mentored. A gifted giver has a nose for signs of excellence even when they are unformed and just beginning to stir. A gifted giver, like the artist, puts the pieces together and out of the mysterious puzzle that is life makes something coherent. This makes the link between the creative process and generous behavior complete. Great art hits a nerve. Great acts of generosity, of philanthropy broadly defined, hit a nerve as well. The art of philanthropy at the end of the day is the gift of high expectation and opportunity. It is a gift of creativity.
There is an advantage in this art form. You don't have to be a Yeats or a Van Gogh to produce to high performance generosity. Robert Frost's three-part definition of a good poem is relevant —did the poet have anything to say, was he true to it, and did he use good words. Variations of the same questions apply to each of us: what do we most believe in, did we act on those beliefs, and did we execute at the highest possible level. The very process itself, a mix of strong vision, mission, and execution has a simple genius of its own, one that is accessible not to the select few but to the many.
When philanthropy is viewed in its purest form and is true to its root meaning of love of mankind, my argument prevails. When philanthropy is the candle that lights the path to equity, to righting wrong, to enabling others, to giving back, to the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind, to love, and to hope, it lifts the spirit in the same way as art. Whether one is supporting a social entrepreneur in Chicago with an innovative idea to provide very poor kids with skills and self-confidence, a micro-enterprise program in India that is transforming the lives of families, or the reclamation of the ecosystem of the Everglades, the practice of philanthropy, like art, is an 'immense gift'.
I love thinking about things in the context of the creative experience. I like the surge of intensity, passion, commitment, and even obsession that joins the heart and the mind in the making of things. These are the elements that make us emotionally and intellectually engaged, make us alive to what swirls around. It is how we wake up out of the somnolence of the everyday. How we go deep into our humanness. I think it always comes out as a 'gift' to the larger world, sometimes as a poem or painting, but more frequently something else.
It is interesting how those who we think of as 'gifted' are at the end of the day themselves a 'maker of gifts' and it is through that process the artist realizes meaning. I think it is the same for each of us in our own search for meaning— we are most fully realized as a ‘maker of gifts.’
To become fulfilled, the poet/artist/maker of gifts needs to cross the bridge between his private self and public self. Even as reclusive a poet as Emily Dickinson, who lived an entire writing life hidden away in a wood frame house in Amherst, wrote for readers she never knew. She knew it would someday happen, although the immense success of her poems would have been beyond her wildest imaginings.
May your gifts succeed beyond your wildest imaginings!