I spent a summer in Kolkata, India serving at a vocational training center for young women in the slums. The center was run by a team of Kolkatans and a missionary couple from Switzerland. One afternoon the Swiss family invited my teaching partner and me to their sixth floor apartment, newly rented in hopes of literally rising above the pollution that had hospitalized their baby repeatedly.
As we sat down, they brought out a prized possession to share with us: a Swiss caramel treat, the last of what they had brought with them from their home country. It was not available in India.
At the time, I felt uneasy about such a gift. We would certainly enjoy the dessert, but not as much as they would have, because it didn't have the same feeling of home for us. Besides, we'd be back in the States in a few weeks and could eat anything we wanted.
Since it would be highly offensive to refuse the treat, we ate, and I tried to enjoy the heck out of it for the sake of their kindness.
But I thought it was a waste. A waste of their treasure on people who couldn't value it fully.
Fear feeds stinginess. For anyone who has lived in need and lack, or in great fear of loss, tight-fistedness can feel safer than generosity and trust. We may grip our fear tightly, brandishing it like a shield, as if it can keep us secure in case things start to fall apart.
I admire--really, I'm in awe of--the generous people in my life. I want to be generous, not merely as someone who gives away money and things, but as someone who lives without fear of lack, someone who delights in others' joy more than my own. I want to be open-hearted and -handed, giving freely as God has given to me, trusting that I will have what I need.
And it hits me: I still remember that Swiss woman's culinary sacrifice almost nine years later. Maybe it was I who couldn't see clearly. Maybe her "waste" has reverberated through these years and countries because it is the essence of love.
In our industrialized, high-powered culture, we've developed a strong utilitarian ethos. We want things to be useful, productive, efficient, sensible. But can love reside with utilitarianism?
One of my lifelong favorite books is Le Petit Prince--The Little Prince. This little prince hails from a planet so small that there is only him, a few volcanos, and a rose. Oh, his rose! He loves his rose dearly, and tends to her every need for provision and protection, though she is proud and cannot bring herself to acknowledge her thankfulness or love for him until he is gone.
One day he begins a journey that lands him on Earth, where he meets a fox under an apple tree. The fox patiently teaches the little prince how to tame him--how to become unique in all the world to each other. When it is time for the little prince to leave, the fox tells him a secret: "It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important." The prince repeats it to himself so as to remember it.
It is the time we waste for our rose that makes our rose so important. It is what we waste for people, out of love, that makes those relationships so important.
Now, I'm not talking about wastefulness that abuses resources or time, nor laziness, nor destructiveness.
I'm talking about love so great that it compels us to give without thought of usefulness. Is it useful to tend a beautiful unfurling rose? Is it useful to snuggle a fuzzy-headed baby who makes nursing motions in his sleep? Is it useful to bring fresh-baked bread to tired workers at the nearby construction site? Is it useful, practical, or sensible to give a special Swiss caramel treat to Americans who don't even recognize it and will soon return to the States?
I want to waste time on people, giving them an irreplaceable part of myself and the assurance that they are worth it. I want to waste treasures on people--even those things that I cannot get in Taiwan, that mean more to me than to them. I want to waste love. I want to love such that I get no receipt, no return on my investment, no guanxi or pat on the back.
This love need not be productive (although true love always produces something beautiful, even if it is invisible to the eye). It need not be useful (is not life more than food and the body more than clothes?). It need not be efficient (love cannot operate on a schedule).
Greater love has no one than this, that they lay down their life for their friends--the utmost waste. May we love with that kind of "wastefulness."