On The Value of Generosity

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For September 19 weekender, 2015


David W. Hegg

Recently the virtue of generosity has been on my mind, spurred on by a news photo of refugees in Hungary taking off their shoes as they waited to board a train. It seems they were leaving them for other refugees who were not able to avail themselves of rail transportation. Those riding were attempting to help those consigned to walk, even though they would never know who they were.

As I reflected on the picture it hit me that such selfless generosity lies at the heart of a healthy society. When we sacrifice to meet the needs of others, and do so generously despite the cost to self, we strengthen the cords of unity that bind us together as a nation. But all too often the genuine virtue of generosity is being polluted by our increasing addiction to the gods of personal promotion and selfishness.

By personal promotion I refer to those who see generosity as just another means of advertising themselves. They flaunt their actions, making sure everyone knows just how generous they are, and how civic minded they must be. One wonders if there is any sacrifice or genuine care residing in their hearts or if they are as blatantly self-promoting as they appear. Of course, their money helps many worthy causes, but in too many cases it is difficult to find the virtue hiding among all the arrogance. And, when public generosity no longer gains them anything, it is certain the money will dry up. At it's core, this isn't generosity as much as a cynical attempt to purchase good will behind a facade of compassion.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who are never generous, in any way, even for public relations reasons. They are just plain selfish, and stingy. They are out to get all they can, can all they get, and then sit on top of the can scared to death they won't have enough. When they see others in need they scoff at their wrong choices, or chortle about how helping them will actually do more harm than good. And when asked to support a cause or movement they are the first to declare such things as scams.

But despite the ways genuine generosity has been co-opted or maligned, it remains an essential ingredient in our democratic experiment. A government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" speaks not only to our responsibility to be active politically,  but also to our mutual responsibility to take care of one another. That will mean developing a generous heart, and then enjoying the delight that comes with it.

So, here's my suggestion. Find a way to be generous to someone, some cause, or some institution this week. And don't just do what's easy. Take a risk. Give more than you think you should. Volunteer to do something you've always left to others. Go out of your way to help someone in need. And along the way, watch as your "comfort zone" expands to encompass an attitude of "others first."

When those selfish thoughts begin to crawl up your neck, think about the millions of refugees who have left everything behind to find some remnant of life and a secure future. They have left with only their clothes, and even so are willing to give away their shoes. What do they know that we don't? Only this: When your giving enhances another's living, you've gained much more than you've lost. Try it and see, and just maybe we can return generosity to the honored position it deserves in our hearts and lives.