There are reasons generosity gets wide praise. One of them is also the reason altruism and self-sacrifice get wide praise. Self-sacrifice involves someone giving up something of value to them, including possibly their life, for the benefit of other people. Well, we are included in those other people. Seeing self-sacrifice in others makes us like them because they are doing something to benefit us. But what if we were the ones being asked to sacrifice ourselves? Some of us would do it for various reasons, but it wouldn’t feel all that good. In a similar way, generosity is of benefit to people other than the generous person, including us, so of course we praise it. But there is where the comparison breaks down.
While self-sacrifice often feels miserable, and nobody sensible does it without a good reason, being generous actually feels good. Many people genuinely enjoy being generous for its own sake. In my past life, when I was a working man with a middle-class income, most of my associates were poor, and I did enjoy doing things for them that they couldn’t do for themselves because I had the money and they didn’t. And they enjoyed it too…at first. Over time, some came to expect generosity from me and take it for granted, while others came to resent the way I went about being generous. The former dropped all contact with me when my resources became low and I was no longer able to provide financial benefit to them. I understand their perspective; they felt betrayed, because they had come to expect things from me. The latter group is much more interesting, because they taught me something valuable about both sides of the generosity equation, and it’s a lesson I hope I’ve learned even if I never again get to put the learning to good use.
Some generosity, like my old generosity, is opporessive. The generous person becomes a tyrant. This is actually a two-way street. Recipients of generosity seek to preserve their self-respect, so they try to do something in return for what you’re giving them. In many cases all they can do is go out of their way to accommodate your desires and actively try to know what you, the generous person, want to do, and then go along with whatever you suggest. Many generous people are not aware of this. Some, such as my former self, are merely thoughtless and unreflective. We become so accustomed to other people seeming to worship our desires that we become whimsical and drag them around like beasts on a chain. And that breeds resentment just as surely as mice breed disease.
It took me many years and much thinking to sort out these subtleties of how people of different financial profiles relate to each other. I’m still figuring it out. When I hear of someone in plight, my first instinct is still to lay myself on the line for them and do what I can to help them. Luckily, I am so poor that I often cannot do much about the kinds of problems most people face. The only thing I can really do is be sympathetic and emotionally supportive and offer to brainstorm with them about the solutions to their problems. And people are often astonished when I do that. The most common thing they say is that they’re surprised another person would bother to help them. So I guess it gives them faith in our species, which gives them courage. Which, in the end, is of far more value than interest-free loans, trips out of town, fancy clothes and accessories, and twelve-ounce-steak dinners.
There is a whole world of literature written by professional donors of their time, expertise and other resources to those in need of them. I wish I’d bothered to read some of that literature before it was too late. Now, i sit at my handout-recipient’s desk all day and do what I can. Which isn’t much, but has to be enough, because there is nothing else.