Generosity Q&A

Edna Rienzi, one of the amazing Generosity Day volunteers, asked to me to do a short Q&A about generosity and Generosity Day (below).  She also shares her own beautiful, honest story in her blog post about her own exploration of generosity – and how learning about vulnerability from Brene Brown helped her understand the fear that she experienced with her own generosity experiment, and helped her reengage with generosity in a new way.

I’m so looking forward to reading all the generosity stories that get shared between now and February 14th.

Q: Generosity is…

Opening your heart, being courageous, creating connection, living a life of service.

Q: What is something you know now about generosity that you didn’t know before your generosity experiment?

A lot. Honestly I’d never given any proper thought to generosity before my generosity experiment and I never thought of it being particularly important. That is, I always admired generous action but I never understood how foundational generosity could be in our relationships, how it is the foundation of all philanthropy and social change work, how all the major religious traditions have generosity as a core foundational pillar, etc.

I find that we walk through the world deciding what to notice. So before I had kids, I never really noticed kids. And once I became a father I saw strollers everywhere! It’s been the same with generosity. Once I started paying attention to generosity, I started seeing it everywhere.

Q: Did your generosity experiment change your behavior in any lasting ways?

It did, but it really was the first steps down the path. I’d love to say that I’m radically altered, but I think change takes time. I’m naturally a highly analytical person, and I think that mindset can create separation. I see people who don’t have to overcome this like I do and I really admire them. That said, like everything in life it is a practice, and by creating a different intention and by creating space for a new orientation, I have seen changes big and small. I’m keeping at it.

Q: In your blog, you wrote that you believed that Generosity Day struck a chord with people because everyone is hungering for more connection and more meaning. What do you think makes connection and meaning more difficult to attain in today’s society?

At least in the West right now, we’re all so hyper-connected, hyper-busy. We’re running around with our heads buried in our devices and our inboxes overflowing. So on one hand we’re more in touch than ever, but it also feels to me like we’ve created so much separation. It’s so easy to tune out the world around us these days, and in some sense I feel like in doing so we’re denying our basic humanity.

Q: How do you respond to critics who say that it is irrational to give just because someone asks? Some, for example, would argue that it’s a more effective use of your money to donate to a homeless shelter than to give to someone begging on the street.

Of course it’s irrational to give just because someone asks! I don’t think giving starts with rationality, I think it starts with expressing a purpose, acknowledging abundance, and confronting the terrifying notion that you (the giver) and the person who receives your gift are not so different from one another.

What I think confused some people about my generosity experiment was that they might have understood me to be saying that everyone should give to everyone always. I don’t believe that. But I also believe that if you never pick up your head when someone asks for help, if you never actually see the person right in front of you with their hand out…well then you’ve lost a tiny piece of your humanity.

I see a lot of parallels between my generosity experiment and my yoga practice (which was pretty regular up until last year when my third child was born!) So much of yoga is about teaching yourself, through repetition, to unlearn patters of thought and reaction that you’ve taught yourself over decades. So while it’s not actually important to be able to contort your body into some strange position and not panic, it’s really important to learn how to be in stressful situations and stay grounded. The yoga poses are practice for real life. Similarly, I wanted to create a new pattern, to cut directly against the grain of saying “No” every time someone asked for a handout—just to see what a habit of “yes” would feel like and how it might change me. So far I’ve been happy with the results.

Q: Are there any requests for help that you would refuse even on Generosity Day?  

Sure—ones that seemed ugly or self-serving or intentionally against the spirit of the day.

Q: Does romance fit into your vision of Generosity Day or does that get lost in the “reboot”?  (One of my daughters, by the way, accused me of being the Valentine Grinch when I explained Generosity Day to her!)

My wife and I still celebrate Valentine’s Day—in fact, if anything, I’ve been more comfortable with Valentine’s Day than she has over the years! I finally understood what she was saying when we had one of our most romantic dinners early on a Saturday afternoon right before she drove me to JFK airport for a trip to Kenya. I’m a real romantic, but I do agree with my wife that saying, “OK, tonight we’re going to have a special memorable evening!!” can raise the stakes too much, and that the most romantic moments are often the unexpected ones.

Q: What do you hope Generosity Day accomplishes this year? And in the next 10 years?

I’ve had this dream that we could actually shift Valentine’s Day and create broader traditions of love and giving on this day. There’s no reason that can’t happen—I think it would be a relief to people (well, maybe not to Hallmark and Godiva, but to lots of folks).

This year, we’re really focusing on people engaging in generous action—in addition to spreading the word. Because the day won’t really stick with you if you don’t behave differently.

I promise, if you engage in just one act of radical generosity this February 14th, you’ll remember it for years to come!

7 thoughts on “Generosity Q&A

  1. This is all very well, and I suppose giving money to a homeless person might make the giver feel good.

    Is really that the only test? So that if, for example, it makes me feel good to throw trash about, that makes it OK? Don’t we have to also consider the results of my feel-good actions?

    I have a son who is homeless (though he could have any amount of help from us and from this society if he wanted it). If you give him money, it may well make you feel good, but he will immediately spend that money on street drugs, which will worsen an already bad situation. This of course is true of many people on the streets.

    So, how responsible is that behavior in the last analysis? Is it really OK to do any old thing that makes you feel good without considering the likely outcome? Isn’t this just another (and very clever!) way of continuing to be self-centered?

  2. Zorro, I appreciate your concern that generosity could become an egocentric spectacle. However, the side effect of generosity is that one feels good, finds inner contentment and joy. If the act of giving were contaminated by motivations such as fame, power, manipulation or praise it would not produce that sense of inner wealth because it would not be generosity. It would be a ploy.

    Generosity is one of the rare jewels in this world that benefits both oneself and others. The act of generosity requires openness, tolerance and non-attachment. If you think about the ills the plague our society, and indeed the ills that plague your own son, it is generosity that soothes our aching wounds. It is true that generosity does not remove the pain of the world, but generosity does provide the willingness and acceptance to allow those who need help to right themselves when they are ready.

  3. I am not suggesting that you take the money you would give to my son and buy yourself an extra-fancy coffee at the next Starbucks you see. (Though of course, unless you stole the money, you are well within your rights to do that.) If you feel that alleviating the suffering of the homeless is something you feel called to do, you might decide to donate that money to a ministry or organization which works with these people in a constructive way.

    But that is not at all the approach your comment here takes. You say “Generosity is one of the rare jewels in this world that benefits both oneself and others. The act of generosity requires openness, tolerance and non-attachment. If you think about the ills the plague our society, and indeed the ills that plague your own son, it is generosity that soothes our aching wounds.”

    This takes us right back to how YOU feel. Being generous “soothes our aching wounds.” Chiefly, in this particular situation, your aching wounds, since the action you are suggesting, giving money to a drug addict, does not soothe his wounds at all, it makes them worse. You are entitled to give him money if you want to, but I think feeling good about it requires that you ignore the real situation. I still think this is very self-centered. People are often self-centered, we all do it, but I do not think you are entitled to praise yourself for it.

  4. Zorro, sorry if I was unclear in the last post, when I said ‘our’ I meant the collective ails of our society, not ‘my’. I think one of the big misconceptions in our society is that being generous means to give money. Sasha had a great post today that illustrates many other forms of generosity. I work with the poor and mentally ill everyday and you are correct, money on a handout is not what is most beneficial for them. What they do need, and what very few give them, is respect, acknowledgment, and kindness. So instead of giving our material abundance, we should give that which is scarce- namely our time and willingness to be present. Then we just let generosity work its magic.

  5. Thank you, Greg, this is really a very interesting discussion. Time, respect, openness – these are treasures in short supply, and as you point out, can be much more healing for all concerned than an exchange of money. Thank you for your work in this area. The mentally ill are a challenging target for your generosity.

    However, reading Sasha’s next post again, I see that money figures in there very prominently, at the beginning and at the end. Which makes sense. I believe that Sasha is a professional fund-raiser for some charity, or has some similar role. Many of his posts over the years I’ve been reading him have been tactful discussions of how to soften up potential donors. And almost always that means donors of money.

    In other words, there is very much an agenda here about Generosity Day, and it isn’t really all about how to make us better human beings, and it isn’t really about handing money to the homeless (which, as we both recognize, is usually a bad idea anyway), it’s all about getting more of our money for whatever cause the writer is promoting. This supposed promotion of moral betterment isn’t even slightly disinterested, at bottom.

    Money is necessary for most of the work charities do, and I recognize that. I think however that donors have a responsibility to the rest of the world to use that powerful tool wisely. Time and respect also are powerful, and should also be used wisely. We need to go through this world with our eyes open if we are not to unwittingly do harm in the name of doing good.

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