Once upon a time, a thief snuck into the room of a sleeping Buddhist monk. As the burglar rummaged about, the monk awoke. The startled thief ran into the snowy streets with the monk racing after him, "Please stop!" the monk called, and the man finally did, realizing that his pursuer was no threat. "You'll need this," the monk gasped, handing the thief his own coat.
"What do you mean?" the man asked.
"I saw that you dashed from my room into the cold without so much as a winter wrap, and I realized that I had both a woolen blanket and a coat."
Having heard this implausible tale of sainthood years ago, I forgot the details but remembered the essential events. Ordinary people can't be morally compelled to make such extraordinary sacrifices. But for whatever reason—perhaps the sheer absurdity of such unconditional altruism—this parable stuck with me. It rattled around in my skeptical mind until the day my wife played the role of the Buddhist monk.
Nan and I headed into the mountains for a day of skiing with our children, who were four and six at the time. In the chaos of packing up that morning, we'd forgotten our daughter's mittens. The wind was whipping and mercury hovered in the teens, so no mittens meant no skiing. But for Nan the solution was as obvious as it was simple. She always wore two pairs of socks, so she removed the outer layer and pulled them over Erin's hands. The problem solved, we headed down the trail.
I found her approach rather clever, the sort of practical, motherly thinking that often eludes my analytical mind, but hardly heroic. However, the bitter cold and the woolen warmth evoked the parable of the monk's coat. Among the snow-hushed pines, I remembered how the dialogue ended:
"I don't understand," the man said.
"It is simple. You have nothing at all to keep you warm," the monk answered.
"But you are a fool to give away your coat, leaving you with only a blanket," the man replied, reaching for the garment.
"If I had two gloves on one hand and none on the other, would I be a fool to put one of them on my bare hand?" the monk asked.
The man said nothing, took the coat, and hurried down the street.
When we are not alienated, when love draws us into the suffering of others, when we see our happiness entwined in their well-being, then generosity is neither foolish nor heroic. It is the simplest and most obvious choice.