It was 1974; I was Assistant Principal Cello in the Fort Wayne Philharmonic Orchestra in Fort Wayne, Indiana--where it gets plenty cold in the winter.

Every Friday, I would walk to the bank nearby (no car), cash my paycheck, walk home, and stash away the money in my tiny apartment. (I was saving, and I didn't trust banks.) I don't remember how much I earned in those days. Not much, but I spent even less. That fall I bought a gorgeous new cello, paid cash. (I mean cash: we're talking a few grand in rolled-up twenties, much to the bug-eyed shock of the violin-maker as I took delivery of the instrument.) Even so, by deep winter I'd socked away some change.

Then I heard about my neighbors.

I want to say their names were David and Lisa, though that's probably not right. I remember she was pretty and too thin. They both looked young enough to be hopeful, broke enough to know hopelessness. We never had a conversation, that I recall. Somehow, I heard that "David" had lost his job, they couldn't make rent, and would have to vacate the next day.

That night, I silently slipped over to their building and slid an envelope into their mailbox. It contained a thick wad of rolled-up twenties with a note saying only that this was from a neighbor who wished them well.

They stayed...at least as long as I did, which was till summer. They never knew where their rent that month came from.

I told no one. I knew instinctively, intuitively, that I couldn't. Why not? Had no idea--I just couldn't. For the next 30 years, I maintained so strong a sense of privacy over the event that my own memory soon lost their names and other particulars of their history, retaining only the faint outline you've just read.

Now I think I know why. Primitive tribes the world over believe that if you take a photograph of another, you have power over that person. If David and Lisa had known who I was, would that have given me power over them? If so, I didn't want it.

Now I realize, there are two ways to give. One is to give something of value to others (money, knowledge, comfort, perspective, time, attention, care...), but to retain--or even, by the giving, to increase--your power over them. You get to look generous, but still have the upper hand.

The other way is to give something of value away--just give it away, holding onto nothing. To give away the power, too.

Which is more common? And which, the more satisfying?

JOHN DAVID MANN
is Editor in Chief of Networking Times.