What does it mean to be generous?

3 Dec

This project is about generosity, amongst other things. But am I really being generous, giving R100 notes to beggars? And what is generosity anyway?

On the way to the mountain yesterday, I had a moment of insight. A road trip is as much about the soundtrack as it is about the journey, and I indulged in all my favourite music. Driving alone is such a selfish act, isn’t it? You decide when and where you go, and you don’t need to ask anyone’s permission for anything. I thought back to the road trips I’d  done with my ex-husband. We visited the Waterberg toether many times, and every time we clashed over music. He loved Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart, and I was fans of neither, and instead of just smiling and nodding, I protested. I resisted. I always resisted. Why?

Me on the mountain 10 years ago

Me on the mountain 10 years ago

And suddenly, just then, I felt a terrible sense of loss, of my meanness and pettiness, and a lump formed in my throat there on the R511 as the road took a turn to the left, past mielie fields and tractors. (My ex would have been able to tell me whether those mielies were good ones, and whether the farmer knew what he was doing.)

I should have been more generous. I should have given over more of myself in so many ways, and yet I chose to resist. It was like being married to a headmaster because I was always In Trouble, but I got my revenge by being mean and passive and withholding. In the unlikely event that I am ever in a relationship again, I will be more generous. I won’t question, I will just do.

Generosity is central to this project. Generosity, not so much in the sense of giving money away, but in the larger sense of giving of oneself. If I’m not comfortable with a discussion about how I’m being generous in doing this, because I’m not sure that I am. The handing over of money to beggars is as much about guilt – how I should have given more in the past – and a futile attempt to buy my own love as it is about being truly generous.

But generosity is what this is about, because generosity is not just about handing over money to strangers. It’s also about generosity in all aspects of our lives. Generosity of spirit. The saying of yes instead of no. The giving of time or energy when we have neither to spare.

Is there a dark side to generosity? I wonder about this. Am I being generous when I battle to say no to anything? When I help others with projects with no expectation of payment (though payment would be nice)? When I give advice and input when asked and when, at the end of the month, I realize, again, that I’m hopeless with money and that if I carry on like this, I’m going to be broke?

I suspect that a lot of what might look like generosity is rooted in excessive niceness, in a fear of offending others or the conviction that what I do is of little worth anyway. There’s a fine line between being generous and being a schmuck.

You can only be truly generous if you believe that you are of value. If you don’t, it’s just masochism.


4 Responses to “What does it mean to be generous?”

  1. PM December 3, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    Here is a conundrum: if you are being generous in order to feel better about yourself, are you truly being generous? If the real focus is all about yourself, then you are not being generous, but rather a form of other directed selfishness. Being generous implies that the real reason you do something is for the other person–because you have invested time and understanding into them, and you know that doing whatever it is is meaningful to them (as opposed to being meaningful to you).

    But all of that said, really, you need to know yourself before you can be generous, and I think that this trip is about self-discovery for you–trying to see yourself as others see you. Because that is the first step away from being self centered, which is an essential step on the road to being generous.

    Still I wouldn’t read too much into not liking Willie Nelson–I mean, who does? On the other hand, Rod Stewart….


    • Sarah Britten December 3, 2012 at 6:16 pm #

      You are right in your observation about using generosity as a means to buy one’s own love – I wonder how many people who sublimate themselves in the service of others are motivated by something other than generosity. I’m not so sure about self-discovery in the sense that you put it here. We see the world as we are, after all – so how others see us is likely to offer little in the way of real enlightenment.

      • PM December 3, 2012 at 10:51 pm #

        “We see the world as we are, after all – so how others see us is likely to offer little in the way of real enlightenment.”

        Yes, we have blinkers or filters or what have you that make our view of the world personal/subjective–an objective (God’s eye) view is not possible. but, the fact that we can see that some other person’s view of the world differs from our own (or that their opinion of us differs from our own personal opinion) demonstrates our limitations, our subjectivity. And, while we may never attain objectivity, we can at least get closer–get better. That is why we listen to other people–not necessarily because they are right, but because we can be better than we are, because we can learn from them–even if they are not as smart as we are (because they certainly will know something that we do not). And even that little bit can be a form of enlightenment. Maybe even Willie Nelson….

        So i doubt I’ll ever know who i really am. maybe I have a chance to figure out who i really was, once. But, hopefully, i keep on getting closer. And trips up a mountain do tend to help me out with this (funny how you can sometimes learn more from doing something again as opposed to doing something entirely new).

  2. Arty December 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm #

    I generally have very little time for beggars – I don’t give them anything at traffic lights. Too often I’ve seen them throw away food, be verbally abusive to female and elderly drivers or even had the cheek to tell me R5 isn’t good enough.

    After 17 years of charity work (raising money doing hard work and then spending it wisely on sustainable projects) my conscience is clear as far as I’m concerned. I work hard for the money I (personally) have, so I feel I have a right to know how it’s going to be spent if I give it away. If I was okay with a beggar buying booze then sure, I’d give them money, but I’m not – I want them to only spend it on food or something important to their survival and well-being.

    The way I see it, I’d rather give extra energy and time and money into sustainable projects that I would be involved in on a more long term basis, than a once-off R5 to a beggar who is going to squander it. My thinking is that hopefully, all the hard years I’ve put in will have helped in some small way to lesson the possibility of more people ending up on the streets.

    Anyway, this is a great experiment and I’ve enjoyed reading some of your entries!

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