On Generosity

– Generosity: readiness or liberality in giving.
– Altruism: the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others.

At first glance generosity seems like such a simple concept and is pretty easy to define. However there seem to be a few challenges around generosity that have captured my thoughts lately.
Firstly it seems that most people have a cap or set of rules around what it can be, how far it can go and perhaps to whom it is shall apply. And that limit or set of rules is different for everyone. Also most people see generosity and altruism as desirable traits and perhaps criticise others for being selfish and/or stingy. So it’s different for each of us and we all think it’s important.
Let’s explore the rules and limits. It seems in general terms the rules and limits line up with our social structures. For the immediate family there is no real limit; buying your children, husband or wife an expensive gift may get a sidewards glance for being excessive but is nearly always acceptable. I would say this even holds regardless of the financial situation; generosity beyond what the family can afford emphasises the money value but doesn’t always make it unacceptable. Altruism most commonly exists here, with your immediate family.
As a point of clarity, I don’t count mutually beneficial purchases like televisions as generous. I think that is more about gratification for the purchaser and not generosity from one person to another.
Perhaps the next level down from family is relatives and close friends. Depending on how well your family get on and how close your friends are this may vary. Either way it would seem relatives and close friends aren’t afforded the same level of generosity you give your immediate family but perhaps pretty close. An interesting transition here is that generosity of non-monetary items (e.g. time, thought) is almost as common and is as acceptable as with family while money based generosity changes. An example is buying friends’ lunch and birthday gifts are common as long as equality is maintained. Yet in a time of need, emotional support in the form of cards, small gifts and actual time is provided without question. Depending on the friend/relative and event this generosity may even come with some sacrifice to you and your immediate family. I would say this is very rare in an absolutely unrestricted sense though.
Moving outwards to associates and a broad social circle; generosity is rare in either monetary or non-monetary terms. I suspect we all generally assume that other people surely have family and friends that will provide them what they need. Then finally, society in general is rarely afforded our generosity. Donations to charities are quite generous on face value; giving to people we don’t know. However they are measured, controlled and hardly impacts us personally.
Can someone be too generous?
Most people seem to arrive at yes. This is really interesting when we recall all the benefits of generosity. Interesting when we all agree that generosity is an admirable and desirable trait in others. Imagine a world without charity organisations, or local volunteer groups. It would be a very different place. How could we possibly believe someone can be too generous then?
Two reasons: Because the generosity of others is degrading to us, we therefore believe giving to others degrades them. And we are unfortunately self-interested at a primal level and want to protect what we have, even if we don’t actually need it.
So pretty much our own weaknesses prevent generosity being given and received. The thinking behind why it is degrading differs a little from person to person. A scenario to demonstrate; you’ve had a hard few months, the bills are piling up and the car broke down and cost more than you could have ever budgeted for. Work is just terrible, you wish you could quit and find something else but you can’t afford to. You go out to dinner with an old friend, someone you catch up regularly with and the last few times out they have picked up the bill. Again the bill comes out and they offer to pay. Would your reaction be any of these?
– ‘don’t you think I earn enough to pay my own way’,
– ‘don’t you think I can look after myself/family’,
– ‘do you think you’re better than me’,
– ‘I don’t want to appear stingy but I really can’t afford this, frustrating/annoying’
– ‘next time I need to say no to lunch’
If not then what was your reaction? I believe the thinking will ring true, at some level we are likely to feel devalued. Now let’s consider the reverse situation; you are picking up the bill. You know from conversation that your old friend isn’t coping. That car repair was high even from what you expected. You have both finished eating and now just finish off your drinks slowly, still chatting. In the back of your mind you want to help and know picking up the bill again is one thing you can do to help out. And hey, it’s not like you can’t afford it. So what is going through your head when you think of offering to pay? You don’t want to imply they can’t afford it? Is it something similar to your reaction as the receiver, but in reverse?
The second reason mentioned above, that we aren’t generous because want to build and protect what we have is pretty straight forward but more confronting perhaps. It is pretty black and white selfishness so very few of us will take that on board. We reason the behaviour out as something other than selfishness. However we don’t really need a new phone, a new car, an expensive night out etc etc. When it comes down to it we don’t ‘need’ much at all. And most of what we own doesn’t make us happy, it generally makes us unhappy.
There may be one type of generosity which can be questioned. When someone is generous for some type of return. Some of us are extremely generous in many ways and go without for the better of others. True altruism requires unselfish concern and motivation for others. While the giving and going without is unselfish there may be underlying desires looking to be satisfied. Being generous so people think you’re generous for example is ultimately selfish. Generosity and altruism are not about martyrdom or making people care.
There are two other things I find interesting about generosity. Firstly that in most cases generosity has a money value attached. Secondly that for generosity to exist we must also learn to receive it. I make the point about money value just so it can be kept in mind. Being generous and living altruistically is not inherently about money. That nearly everything we do is related to money makes it hard to separate but if how much is spent comes to mind then you’re missing the point.
And finally, without willing receivers there can’t be generosity. If we constantly reject gifts either outright or by minimising the gesture in some way then generosity is discouraged. Our ability to accept generosity for exactly what it is and not a degrading act is just as important as developing generosity.
I don’t think we can be too generous as long as it is being done for the right reasons.

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