To be or not to be (generous)

Quite a few years ago I was discussing this point with a dear friend. We often talked about religious questions, he being a Reconstructionist Jew and myself a practicing Buddhist and Unitarian Universalist. The question on the table was: should we do generous acts even when we don’t feel generous, hoping to become so, or should we wait until we feel generous to act generously? Actually, the original conversation was probably about good deeds rather than generosity specifically, it’s hard to remember. In any case, it seems applicable.

Most religions have something to say on this topic, leaning in one direction or the other. At the time of this conversation, I was in the first camp, thinking “don’t wait until the spirit moves you, act generously and kindly NOW”. On the other hand, it is more rewarding to give when we feel our hearts rising up with the urge to give. So, in the great tradition of older people, these days I’m saying “do both!”.

This is my way of encouraging all of us to make generosity a habit. Whatever situation we’re in, there is usually an opportunity to think of others and what might be helpful, useful or pleasurable for them. If you have a few spare minutes, you could phone your mother or friend, or someone who was bereaved months ago. Any number of people might be pleased to hear from you, especially if your interest or concern is sincere. My theory is that there are many people we care about who never know that we care because we don’t reach out and let them know. Most of us can’t make this the central activity of our life, but we all can weave in minutes of care throughout the day. Almost everything we do can be done with more or less mindfulness of the results of our actions on others. Our tone of voice, no matter what we’re saying, communicates degrees of our kindness or indifference.

The reason I come back to this topic again and again is that it is the essential first step and also the measure of our progress. No real growth is possible when we think we’re acting only for ourselves, without considering others. The heart-opening that practicing generosity brings about is the foundation for any movement towards making our actions more wholesome, towards freedom from suffering.

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