Sunday, January 30, 2011

what I learned about generosity

After a full month of thinking about generosity, I figured that I'd thought it all. (Because, you know, I'm so generous in my opinion of myself.) After a call tonight with three other inquisitive, generous souls, I've learned even more.

Our conversation covered a variety of topics, but I can break it down into six major areas.

Generosity and intention
The big agreement had on the call was that generosity has everything to do with intention. That the energy behind a generous act must be freely given, and released from expectations.

For example, if I hold the door for people but get miffed when they don't say "thank you," then I'm not necessarily being generous. I'm being generous with expectations on how that behavior will be received or rewarded. Similarly, giving someone money does not necessarily imply that you're generous. It's how or why you give the money that makes you generous.

Generosity and guilt
One participant talked about the "escalation" factor between two people who, for all intents and purposes, look like they're being generous. One will pay for dinner tonight, and the other will pay for dinner the next night. The first then feels compelled to buy tickets to the next event. The second then has to reciprocate. And it leads to bigger and more expensive shows of "generosity" and can lead to feelings of guilt and competitiveness.

The learning? If you start to feel guilty about being generous -- or not being generous -- it may be a sign that your motives (or the motives of the person you're with) are not truly generous. That they're coming from an intention to impress or compete or fill some obligation instead of coming from the heart with a desire to freely give. So what can you do? Accept the other person's generosity at face value. If someone does something nice for you, receive it, smile, and say "thank you."

Generosity and the comfort zone
An interesting perspective was brought up about the comfort zone, and how people will often be more generous in areas that are more comfortable to them. If, for example, you have money (but not time), you may feel more apt to give away money. But which is more generous? Giving away the money or the time? To be truly generous, do you give away something you have lots of? Or something precious to you?

I think it all hinges on whether you give it freely, and I, personally, think people are more likely to give what they feel they have ample amounts of.

For example, I baked a cake for a friend's birthday the other night. Because I like to bake, it didn't feel particularly generous for me. If I had bought a round of drinks, say, or ordered in dinner for the party, that would have felt generous. But my bringing a cake, when viewed from the outside, can easily appear -- to my friend especially -- very generous of me.

(Which, of course, begs another question -- is an act generous when it doesn't feel generous? Does something have to register with the giver as being generous for it to actually be generous?)

Generosity and heroism
Acts of extreme heroism can be considered generosity -- but are they? Wesley Autrey, the guy who jumped onto the subway tracks to save a total stranger, has claimed that he was doing what anybody else would do. But nobody else jumped in front of an oncoming train on that platform that day. So does that mean the station was full of non-generous people?

Again, I think this goes back to the comfort zone, and risk. What Autrey gave freely is considerably more than I would freely give. And maybe that's the difference between a generous act and a heroic one. I'm not sure.

Generosity and compassion (and pity)
Give a rich person a dollar, and it doesn't feel generous. Give a beggar a dollar, and it does. So is there a link between the "deservingness" of the recipient of a generous act and the amount of generosity involved? Does the recipient have to be in need of the generosity to benefit?

I think this goes back to the question of expectations and what impact the giver intends the act to have. For example, I would be more likely to make assumptions about how a beggar would spend my dollar than I would about how a rich person would. I would also be more likely to give the dollar freely to the beggar.

So is it compassionate to give to someone in need? Or is it generous? Or, is it, as one one participant asked, showing pity? What's the link between the three?

Generosity and awareness
It's morning rush hour and you're walking on a New York City street in the snow. A crummy neighbor has shoveled inadequately, so there's a mere 12 inches of walkway to be had for ten feet. There's someone coming towards you from the opposite side of the snow patch, so you step aside and let that person go first. But she's wrapped up in her cellphone and doesn't notice your generous behavior.

Is she rude? If she hadn't been distracted by her phone, would she have been more generous herself? Does living in the city make people less generous? Does it make them less thankful for the generosity around them? What's the link between generosity and gratitude?

Here's what I think: the universe has been incredibly generous with me. I have a great job, amazing friends, a family I love spending time with, and a brain and a body on loan for the rest of my lifetime that's right up there in the top. And I repay the universe with my gratitude. I share my gratitude with others through acts of generosity.

It's been an incredible month, and I don't want it to end. I've learned more about generosity -- of spirit, especially -- than I ever thought I would. But February's all about passion and determination, and how AWESOME is that going to be??

1 comment:

  1. Reminds of what a friend of mine said. He bought me a drink, but when I tried to pay for his next drink, he said, "Don't buy me a drink, because then I didn't buy you a drink!" Kinda makes my head spin, but I understood him.