Learning To Give For The Sake Of Giving

I want to focus on being generous as a goal in and of itself, and not to aim to pat myself on the back or strive for admiration from others.

Like most people, I was taught that it is better to give than to receive. Yet ever since my older brother declared me selfish when I was 5, I’ve worried that generosity is not my natural inclination. Ashamed that he’d glimpsed a dark truth within me, I’ve spent a lifetime trying to hide my selfishness rather than cultivating my generosity. The difference hit me this holiday season.

Don’t get me wrong, no one thinks me a Scrooge. I enjoy giving to others by volunteering, donating to charities, selecting and making thoughtful gifts for friends, family, and coworkers. I’m also not suggesting that money spent or time invested measures generosity. Rather, if generosity is defined as selflessness, I know I have a ways to go. Because no matter how thoughtful or lavish my gift, “self” has always been part of the equation.

For instance, I want to do something nice for my kids’ hardworking teachers, but I also want the cookies or gift cards we give to bolster the positive impression my children make throughout the year. Choosing chocolates for my holiday party hostess isn’t as much about what she will like as it is making sure she knows my mother raised me right. And when I set the amount for end-of-year contributions to charities, do I give ‘til it hurts? No. I stop before magnanimity eats into my own comfort.

If it’s the thought that counts in giving, what exactly is my thinking? My quid pro quo approach is the antithesis of generosity. Heaven forbid someone should do more for me than I do for them. In such instances, I’m anxious until I can find a way to even the score, proving I am worthy of and equal to their big heartedness.

Some family gifts are the most calculated of all. Sending a check and Vanity Fair subscription to my father, I’m simply trying to avoid giving him something he will complain about needing to return or alter. Paying my yearly daughterly dues with a Christmas check is an act of self-preservation motivated by an old fear of my father’s anger. In fact, all my seasonal gifting is in some way fueled by fears small and large: fear of retaliation from the slighted paper boy, fear of looking foolish, fear of rejection by friends, and the ultimate fear of winding up unloved and alone.

According to The University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Initiative, fear is one of the “vices” that must be rejected—along with selfishness, greed, and meanness—to cultivate generosity. By nature, I am not a mean person. Marrying and becoming a mother dimmed greedy tendencies I worried about as a 5-year-old. But shadow fears left over from childhood have held me back from being truly generous.

This season at the hair salon, as I stood at the counter writing out my little tip envelopes for my stylist and the woman who shampoos my hair, I suddenly wondered why I gave 20 percent instead of 30. Sure, according to the etiquette books, 20 was right and proper—and I’d been trying to be right and proper all my life. But the difference was only a few dollars, and if I could afford 30, why not give 30? I wasn’t trying to be a big shot. I was trying, through generosity, to make someone’s day. As I folded the bills and placed them in the envelopes, I thought about how a fear of poverty—left over from long ago, when electric bills couldn’t be paid and my mother and I hunted coat pockets for lunch money—was still at work in my tipping. I’m not in that situation anymore—far from it—so why do I still sometimes operate that way?

Shining a light on these old worries is allowing me to let them go for good. And that has begun to shift my focus from muting selfishness to amplifying generosity. Instead of hoarding my bills, doling out just enough to be respectable, I want to share my good fortune. Rather than transactional payment for services, I want to express what I feel: kinship with the people helping me, the mothers and daughters working for their families just like I am. Just like my own mother did. Rather than dutiful annual contributions, I want to express this kinship in charitable giving that is buoyant, spontaneous, and frequent.

From now on, instead of striving to do the “right” thing, I want to do the generous thing: to give wildly, joyfully, freely—like I’m flying down a hill on a bike, letting go of the brakes. I’m sure many would say the generous thing is the right thing, but thinking about giving in terms of right and wrong is dangerous territory for me, leading me to consider how I will be perceived. I don’t want “self” to come into my thinking at all. Instead, I want to focus on being generous as a goal in and of itself, and not to aim to pat myself on the back or strive for admiration from others.

“How much should we give Isabel?” my husband asked me just before Christmas. For a decade, Isabel has cleaned our house. She tells me when my dogs are getting too fat and asks me for advice about getting her kids into college. As she does her work, it makes it possible for me to do mine—and to get my own kids into college. Along with a gift and card, my husband and I always add extra cash to her weekly pay at Christmastime. I used to stew over the amount: What did “good” clients give? What would Isabel assess as generous? What could we afford amidst our other holiday bills and shopping? What might she expect next year based on this year? No matter how generous the final amount might have appeared, after all the mental gymnastics I’d done, whatever we gave felt stingy to me. I’d sucked the joy right out of it.

“Double,” I said this year, without missing a beat. For me, this is progress; not the amount, but the impulse. This year, my gratitude for the work Isabel does was my first and only thought. It felt a little fearless. It felt like a gift.

Andrea Jarrell’s essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and several sites, publications, and anthologies. Her memoir I’m the One Who Got Away will be published in 2016. 

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