The enormous littleness of generosity

Opinion: Ken Trainor

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By Ken Trainor

Staff writer

In the weeks since Christmas, I've been thinking about generosity and the role it plays in my life. It felt different this year.

Being generous and feeling generous are not the same. You can be generous without feeling generous and you can feel generous without being generous. We are complicated entities and sometimes out of synch with ourselves. 

December is the peak month of generosity, but also of obligation — we have our lists of people we "have to" buy for. We want to, in most cases, but also have to. Yet true generosity, it seems to me, thrives on freedom from attached strings, deadlines, and budget considerations. How much is too much? In December, to some extent, we ration our generosity. Christmas inevitably aligns with the monetary and the material. Stretching our generosity muscles is good for us, but it's exercise.

Families pull names for "Secret Santa." You might be less than thrilled with the name you pulled, but you also might enjoy shopping for someone you're not that close to. Generosity can bring us closer. 

I tend to be selectively generous. I admire people for whom generosity seems second nature. I had to grow into it. But generosity doesn't seem to make everyone happy. If it isn't appreciated, it can be deflating. If it isn't reciprocated, it can lead to resentment. And being habitually generous doesn't always come from feeling generous. 

We question motives. Is generosity altruistic or merely enlightened self-interest? Is there a "payoff," the feel-goodness of it? Do we seek a "virtue rush"? Are we really soliciting others' approval? Looking for recognition? 

Am I wildly overthinking all this? At the moment, yes. But this past December felt different. I wanted to be generous. Not wildly, not excessively. Just a desire I hadn't been aware of before. It didn't feel obligatory. I didn't worry so much about the Dec. 25 deadline. My most meaningful and appreciated gift was given in the new year. And it wasn't purchased.  

I'll bet a lot of people reached this stage long before I did. I've always been a late bloomer. 

There was no accompanying endorphin rush or deep sense of satisfaction. I just looked for small opportunities and didn't hold back when they presented themselves. I gave gifts beyond my "list." 

This shift seemed to come out of nowhere, which made me wonder. The seventh of Erik Erikson's eight stages of psychosocial development is "Generativity vs. Stagnation." Generativity and generosity share the same root, but generativity is bigger. Generosity also overlaps with kindness, but they're not identical either. Maybe we don't become capable of true generosity of spirit until we reach a certain stage in life, and some of us reach it later than others. 

It's the "wanting to" that felt different. Wanting people to be happy and hoping to help make it so.

And maybe also observing generosity in others. On Election Day this past November, I happened to ride the Green Line home from the Loop with Bob Spatz, a remarkable guy who has served on the District 97 school board for a long time (speaking of generosity). As we left the Oak Park station, a woman came up and started telling us her story. Times were tough and she needed money to get on the el. I wasn't feeling generous so I turned away. Bob, however, listened — generous in its own right — and finally said, "I can tap you onto the Green Line if that will help." He didn't just listen. He did something. I admire that. Witnessing generosity can make you feel a little sheepish — or it can make you feel more generous. 

This year I've been pushing myself to give to panhandlers more often. It's not so much that I like the feeling of giving. It's more that I dislike the feeling of holding back, closing my inner door, which feels too much like saying no to life. Stagnation.

Thinking about generosity reminded me of a favorite poem, "The Character of Love Seen as a Search for the Lost" by Kenneth Patchen:

You, the woman; I, the man; this, the world: And each is the work of all. There is the muffled step in the snow; the stranger; the crippled wren; the nun; the dancer; the Jesus-wing over the walkers in the village; and there are many beautiful arms around us and the things we know.

It's a poem about compassion, which is a distant cousin of generosity.

You, the sought for; I, the seeker; this, the search: And each is the mission of all. For greatness is only the drayhorse that coaxes the built cart out; and where we go is reason. But genius is an enormous littleness, a trickling of heart that covers alike the hare and the hunter.

Gen- is a good root: Generation, generativity, genus, genius, genesis, genuine, generosity. 

Generosity is genuine when it is free of all attached strings. But there are many levels of generosity, based on the relative openness of our hearts. 

Maybe wanting to be generous, and paying attention to that desire, is the first step. Maybe people volunteer more as they get older not just because they have time on their hands or want to keep busy. Maybe they can't help themselves.

So much of life is driven by unmet needs. Generosity might be one of those needs — built into us, part of the package.

An enormous littleness, the trickling of an open heart.

Contact:
Email: ktrainor@wjinc.com

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