By Sharon Yamato
A favorite song from my 1970s college days was playing on the radio the other day. As the once young rocker Neil Young, now 64, sang, “Keep me searching for a heart of gold… and I’m getting old,” his words crackled with youthful longing. “Getting old” for him at the time he wrote the song probably meant reaching the ripe old age of 30. As I turn 60, I’m a little nostalgic for those long gone days of youthful idealism. I remember when my Quixote-like idealism led me to believe that the search involved faraway lands, and like Gatsby, I saw the green light at the end of the dock (which symbolized privilege and wealth) as a possibility just beyond the horizon. Perhaps getting old for real has taught me that it doesn’t take wealth and privilege to have a heart of gold, and we really don’t have to search all that hard to find it.
The song was particularly timely having spent a weekend at a birthday retreat to celebrate the seventieth birthday of our friend Mike — a man who could certainly hold his own in the circle of people with golden hearts. To give just one example of his kindness: his daughter knew what would be the best birthday gift in the world for her dad. She asked everyone to give money to a young man who grew up in LA’s barrio to be the first in his family to go to college. It was Mike who helped this deserving kid get to UC Berkeley — not just with financial support and letters of recommendation, but by being there for him as someone with wise and worldly experience and a shoulder to lean on.
The event made me think about what the word generous really means. I found two popularly accepted definitions that made sense: (1) liberal in giving or sharing; unselfish; and (2) free from meanness or smallness of mind or character; magnanimous. Webster’s definition also referred to generous as “exhibiting those qualities which are popularly regarded as belonging to high birth; noble; honorable; magnanimous; spirited; courageous.” Even though you don’t have to be noble to be generous, I guess it helps to have money to be generous with. But it’s good to know that generosity is not simply monetary.
Which brings me to the second reason I’ve been thinking a lot about generosity lately. For the past few months I have been working with the Japanese American National Museum which just celebrated the 10th anniversary of the ground-breaking, Gyo Obata-designed Pavilion building by honoring those large individual (or family) donors whose contributions helped build it a decade ago.
The list of honorees were not names like Ford, Ahmanson, or Irvine, but Aratani, Hirasaki, Inahara, Kagawa, Miyamoto, Nerio, Takei, Terasaki, Watanabe, Watase, Yamauchi, and Yuki. As I read about these amazing people and interviewed some of them and their families to gather information for the Museum, I discovered that generosity is a quality that is passed down through generations. The Jewish people have the ancient tradition of tithing (referring to the Torah tradition of giving 10 percent) and call it tzedakah, which literally means righteousness, or doing the right thing. Though there is nothing in Japanese tradition that is equivalent to tzedakah, George Aratani once told an audience that his father Setsuo would always say yes when asked to give, whether it be for a car for the local Buddhist monk or for money for local schools. Even though the elder Aratani died when George was still a young man, that tradition of giving is still an amazing part of the Aratani legacy.
There is also that thing called kokoro (loosely translated as “from the heart”) and on (obligation to family) which may help explain the importance placed on giving as a way of honoring one’s elders. Many of the Nisei contributors felt it important to pay tribute to their hard-working Issei parents who struggled to make a better life for them. Recognizing that they reaped the benefits of their parents’ sacrifices, these generous donors wanted to make sure their stories would not be forgotten.
Even for those of us who haven’t amassed enough money to give millions to an institution, we all know people and groups less fortunate who need help. Given the economic climate, it’s now more difficult than ever to consider—especially for those who have either lost their jobs or are in danger of losing them. Still, it’s during times like these that those institutions and causes struggling to make ends meet need help more than ever. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the form of money. Last week, I saw a photo of the Obama family taking time to pack books and goods for the families of military servicemen. Though there’s no way of knowing how long they were there packing, it’s still a great example of unselfish magnanimity.
We are all capable of generosity—regardless of who we are or how much money we have. It’s never too late to find a heart of gold around, and never, ever too late to become one.
Sharon Yamato writes from Playa del Rey. She can be reached [email protected] The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.