One of my new year’s resolutions is to make this demand of myself every morning: “Decide How Best to be Generous Today”. I have been reasonably consistent about asking myself the question but I am not sure how much is coming of it so far. “What does being generous even mean?” I’ve asked myself. I talked to a former clergyman about this once. He had been burned by organized religion but seemed to hold on to some good memories of the humanitarian work that he and his flock had done while he was still actively involved.
“Bjorn, we loved even when it hurt, especially when it hurt.” He described difficult situations when it was hard to be generous but people had still stepped forward with a show of altruism. I was impressed. I liked the idea of loving the next person and being generous even when it was difficult.
Displays of almost unnecessary generosity are obviously not the exclusive domain of a particular religion or culture. It is universal. I feel like I have witnessed it everywhere that I have traveled and in every faith community that I have visited (I’m a bit of a religious tourist and enjoy seeing different belief systems in action). I wonder what triggers it. I wonder why I so often hold back from showing it to others.
I have heard political arguments against generosity, against helping others. “If you help them you are enabling their dependency issues,” I’ve been told. I remember one mentor who listened to my frustrations with the complications I was experiencing mentoring a troubled teenager. “You’ve got to let people fail,” she said. On a purely intellectual level I understood what she meant. My own failures in life have often been some of my most teachable moments. If I had never been allowed them I don’t think I would have experienced some of the growth and successes that I am grateful for. But at the same time my mentor’s approach seemed callous and impersonal. She had no idea about the circumstance of this kid, how he’d grown up and what he needed. And yet there she sat pontificating on his need to fail. What if failure was all he knew so far in life? Did he really need another miracle boost of failure or did he need some bootstraps with which to pull himself up?
There are not easy answers – not on a personal level and not on a policy level. I’ll keep asking myself the question though. I’ll keep you in the loop on any epiphanies…