Give It Away

The Paradox of Generosity, part 1

Give it away. Just...give it away. What is life for except the giving of it away? You only get a few years, so spend them joyfully, which is to say lovingly. The meaning that life has is in giving our time, our energy, our resources to others.

Social scientists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson (The Paradox of Generosity) empirically studied how generosity worked. They surveyed two thousand Americans, then did four-hour interviews with forty households. Their in-depth interviews turned up some case studies. You don’t know these families, but will probably recognize the preoccupations that govern their lives.

Here’s one:
“A middle class family, the Arnolds, fall into the daily grind just to be able to keep up with their bills and afford little luxuries along the way. They like many others are not able to define the limit of “enough money” thereby trading what could be a richer life to serving their own interests. Privacy and an attitude that does not way to be involved in other’s business is a ‘mantra’ that they live by in their upper middle class, white neighborhood in a cul-de-sac surrounded by people with similar ideas and beliefs. They call it the Switzerland Effect, staying neutral in everything. While they might give a few dollars here and there they however, live mainly to accumulate wealth and then protect that wealth. There is a vicious cycle of not having enough and therefore clamoring for more and yet happiness that is goal is found to be illusive. They want to stay in a close knit community but don’t want to give time to build relationships; they have anxieties and worries that cause sleep deprivation; they wasn’t to live and let live, yet when life hands them a curve ball they have no one to fall back on, exposing the fault line in this kind of logic. For this family, happiness will remain elusive.”
Or consider the Ramirez family.
“At the other end of the socio-economic spectrum, the Ramirez family’s definition of a good life is to be happy. Sylvia and Danny share the 1970s ranch style home with her mom and uncle. They are frustrated with the neighborhood, the government, the health care system and Sylvia blames the ‘illegal immigrants’ for most of the economic problems. Hard upbringing and a modest income has made Sylvia just look out for her own interests and those of her immediate family. She would give if she had more money because it would give her a tax break. She does sporadic acts of donating canned foods and used clothes but that is the extent of her generosity. Danny on the other hand has seeds of empathy for friends and the environment, but feels strongly that human beings and society is in a downward spiral. People just don’t care, however, he is one of those who is too caught up in his own life to really care about anything or anyone else. Apathy and anxiety mark this couple who are far from their goal of happiness.”
The issue isn’t how much you have, it’s how much you expect – how much you think you deserve. The poor can be very generous, but if they’re bound up in resentment because they think they shouldn’t be poor, then they’ll be ungenerous. Moreover, we know that wealth itself can make people less generous. A year ago, I mentioned from this pulpit various studies that showed the wealthy, on average, will act more entitled. In one experiment, wealthier people were more likely to take candy from a bowl of sweets designated for children.
One study:
“showed through quizzes, online games, questionnaires, in-lab manipulations, and field studies that living high on the socioeconomic ladder can, colloquially speaking, dehumanize people. It can make them less ethical, more selfish, more insular, and less compassionate than other people.”
If you’re wealthy and think you should be wealthy, you’ll tend to act more entitled and less compassionate. If you’re struggling economically, and think you shouldn’t have to be, you’re also likely to be ungenerous.

Whether we think we deserve what we have or think we deserve more than we have, the focus on “I deserve” is toxic to our spirits. Gratitude – often and repeated – is the antidote. When we practice gratitude, expressing thanks for our specific blessings out loud to other people, written in our journal, and whispered in prayer, we are training ourselves out of entitlement. Focus on gratitude supplants focus on deservingness.

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This is part 1 of 3 of "The Paradox of Generosity"
See also
Part 2: Generosity and the Need for Inexact Scorekeeping
Part 3: Ten Percent

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