6.06.2013

How to Be Really Generous

http://moneygizmo.net/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/what-is-being-stingy.jpgLast week, I wrote about the pleasure you get from sharing something you love with others and having them love it too.  It occurred to me after I wrote this that all the things I shared were things that could be enjoyed by others without there being less of it for me to enjoy: fancy donuts at Federal Donuts, a new running route, and the board game Life. 

There's a different kind of sharing, in which the more you share with others, the less you have for yourself, like with time or money or resources.  I won't speak for others, but this kind of sharing is very, very hard for me.  I freely share that which can be enjoyed without reducing my enjoyment of it; I am very stingy when my sharing means less for me.

To give you a sense of where I'm coming from: when my mom and aunt used to take us kids to McDonald's and order each of us a burger and all of us one thing of fries to share, I quickly realized that my food-maximizing strategy was to eat all the fries first.  This was because every bite of my own burger meant time for others to eat the fries, which would mean less fries for me; whereas if I ate the fries first and saved the burger for later, I'd get all the fries and all my burger.  I was five when I figured this out.  So, yeah, I've been a selfish bastard for many, many years.

We all know generosity is a good thing.  As a Christian, you're taught to be generous because God is generous.  So how can someone like me, who is not naturally generous, become more generous? 

For one, you can think about all the good that comes from being generous.  It feels good to give, studies have shown.  If you document your giving, you get a nice tax write-off.  (And the smug feeling that the $100 donation you made to a non-profit you believe in made them $100 richer but me only $75 poorer, with the federal government chipping in the rest.)  And it makes you look good, which is worth something in reputation and/or in getting the favor returned at some point in the future when you need it.

But, for trying to be generous, this all seems awfully selfish and self-centered.  And it still doesn't always make up for the fact that you now have less time, money, and resources than you might have otherwise had if you weren't so generous.  So, this doesn't seem to work.

On the other hand, you could realize that the root problem is that you actually care about these scarce things, and that if you didn't, then losing them wouldn't be as painful.  In other words, it hurts to give up an afternoon or a thousand bucks or a second car because you value these things; if only you'd stop valuing these things and other things, you'd be free from your possessions possessing you and therefore free to be free with your possessions.

This is in fact the posture of many a saint (official or not), who have died to a possessions-driven life and are now alive to a service-driven life.  It is a lofty and inspirational ideal, and a hard standard to live up to.  Not in the least because it is tempting to, in the midst of our conversion to a sacrificial and streamlined lifestyle, yet still be possessed by possessions.  In this case, not the possessions we have, but rather the possessions we have forsaken, whose absence grips us just as much as their presence once did. 

There must be a way to be truly emptied of our stinginess reflex without feeling empty and incomplete.  It is likely not an easy way; even the most ascetic among us, in this country, are still so soaked by the materialism of this age that it will take a while to be free enough from possessions and possessing to be free with what we have that is scarce so that we can share with those around us.

It will take a fundamental shift.  From time and money and resources being for us to maximize our own narrow pleasure, to expanding our pleasure to include that of those around us.  And from a life that is about ourselves and our happiness and our aims, to a life that is about something more than ourselves and that seeks a bigger happiness and loftier aims.

I am not very far along in this shift.  But I have seen and experienced enough to know that when I make it, I will not feel poorer or more embittered, but rather richer and freer.  In fact, that's when I'll know I've made the shift.

"Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name,  that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." - from the letter of the apostle Paul to the church in Philippi


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