Guilt has a bad reputation. When we think about it, we recall uncomfortable feelings of self-disgust and unworthiness. But there is another side to guilt which psychologist Willard Gaylin has put forward: "Guilt is the guardian of our goodness. We are so constructed that we must serve the social good on which we are dependent for survival and when we do not, we suffer the pangs of guilt." To put it another way, this emotion is the price we pay for belonging to a larger world than our inner circle of loved ones.
Please Give is one of the best movies you will ever see on the positive side of guilt. This is the fourth film by Nicole Holofcener, a sensitive and spiritual observer of the manifold mysteries of human nature whose specialty has been plumbing the dynamics of female friendship: Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, and Friends with Money. Please Give broadens this focus and delves into wealth, middle-age, death, and youthful obsessions. The film will elicit laughter and tears in equal measure as it speaks to your heart.
Kate (Catherine Keener) runs a trendy New York store with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) which sells vintage furniture and other household items. However, as they make more and more money from buying things at cheap estate sales and then marking them up, her conscience bothers her and she starts feeling guilty. This growing malaise is exacerbated by the materialism of Abby (Sarah Steele), her teenage daughter who is lusting after an expensive pair of designer jeans. Kate and Alex are doing so well financially that they have been able to purchase the apartment next door to their own. They hope to enlarge and remodel the space. Meanwhile, their neighbor who lives there, Andra (Ann Guilbert), a ninety-one year old recluse, is feisty as ever.
The only ones left to look after Andra are her granddaughters, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a radiology technician who does mammograms, and Mary (Amanda Peet), her older sister who works at a spa where she gives facials. Mary blames Andra for their mother's suicide many years ago and has had nothing but scorn for her. This leaves Rebecca to do all the shopping and other errands for her bad-tempered and unappreciative grandmother. Mary stalks her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend while Rebecca dates Eugene (Thomas Ian Nicholas), the grandson of one of her mammogram patients. When the three of them take a drive outside the city to see the colorful autumn leaves, they bring Andra along. She spoils the celebration of nature's beauty with her negativity.
Something is lacking in Kate's relationship with Alex but she can't quite put her finger on what it is. But she has come up with a way of dealing with her guilt: she hands out money, sometimes five dollars and other times twenty dollars to homeless people on the streets. This generosity is not without its embarrassments: one day she tries to give some left-over food to an African-American man only to have him tell her he is not a bum but simply a patron waiting for a table outside of a restaurant. Kate even tries to serve as a volunteer at a senior citizen center and at a sports program for cognitively disabled youth but isn't able to handle the sadness she feels in their presence. Expecting something big and flashy to put her life in turnaround, Kate is surprised by the joys that come in small moments of kindness, empathy, and generosity where she continues giving from her heart as best she can.
The Complications of Giving and Compassion
We are all moved by the compassion of Mother Teresa and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. We salute the efforts of Karen Armstrong to spread the word about this spiritual practice through the Charter for Compassion. The German philosopher Arnold Schopenhauer once wrote: "Compassion is the basis of morality."
Please Give is a cinematic meditation on what happens when an ordinary person feels the pull of compassion. Kate finds herself empathizing with the poor people in her neighborhood; her compassion is evoked. In Why Good Things Happen to Good People, Stephen Post and Jill Neimark write:
"Compassion is immediate. We are moved by the suffering that is right before us, and we're less likely to be stirred by pain halfway across the world. In that case we might need to make a little extra effort to 'feel' our way into lives that are unconnected to us." Post and Neimark also discuss some of the scientific findings about compassion including:
• Compassion begins at birth
• Compassion calms and connects up.
• Compassion allows us to mirror others' feelings.
• Compassion increases positive emotions.
• Compassion is linked to spirituality.