Gratitude and Generosity

I am working on a book about civic virtue. One of the virtues on my list is generosity. I have to admit, on first glance generosity sounds like an odd civic virtue.  Aren’t we just being generous with other people’s money?  Yes and no. Civic generosity has to be based on a shared vision of the good society, and we can actively promote a vision that is inclusive and empowering.

I have been writing the past few blogs about what I call attitude virtues, like hope and trust.  There are only four attitude virtues. The other two are grace or gratitude, and love or lovingkindness. More on that love in my next blog, but  right now, as Thanksgiving is approaching fast and Christmas is not far behind, I want to focus on gratitude as an attitude and generosity as gratitude in action.

Grace or gratitude (both spring from the Latin word gratia) is accepting that much of what one is blessed with in life is a free gift of nature, ancestry, and/or circumstances, luck, and the kindness of strangers.  Few of us deserve many of the blessings we enjoy. An attitude of grace or gratitude acknowledges the extent to which one is privileged in some way or another. Theologian Galen Ginguerich in The Way of Gratitude regards gratitude as the most fundamental of the attitude virtues. 

The appropriate  behavior responses to gratitude are generosity, compassion, and kindness to those less fortunate. Gratitude also calls people to accept the responsibilities of citizenship, including paying taxes, and to acknowledge our independence by  providing for the common good..

Generosity is the active form of gratitude. Generosity also embodies the virtue attitude of love, agape, lovingkindness—caring about the well-being of others. It reflects the attitude virtues of trust and hope, the expectation (or sometimes demand!)  that generosity will be directed in ways that help those in genuine need and minimize waste and gaming the system.  But most of all, it flows from grace or gratitude, an attitude that makes us more willing to share with others, either through personal sharing or in collaboration with others in private and public efforts to meet human needs and promote human flourishing. Some people may express their generosity with time and attention, others with services, others with financial support. When gratitude affects our civic behavior, it shows up in similar ways—a willingness to get involved in government in active ways from voting, campaigning, running for office to advocating, conversation, compromise, openness to the ideas of others.

The medieval Jewish rabbi and scholar Maimonides suggested that we think about charity, or giving, or generosity; in terms of a ladder of giving.  Here are the eight rungs on his ladder.

  1. To give donations even if they are given grudgingly.
  2. To give less than one should, but do so cheerfully.
  3. To give directly to the poor upon being asked.
  4. To give directly to the poor without being asked.
  5. To make donations when the recipient is aware of the donor’s identity, but the donor still doesn’t know the specific identity of the recipient.
  6. To make donations when the donor is aware to whom the charity is being given, but the recipient is unaware of the source.
  7. To give assistance in such a way that the giver and recipient are unknown to each other. Communal funds administered by responsible people are also in this category.
  8. The highest form of charity is to help sustain a person before they become impoverished by offering a substantial gift in a dignified manner, or by extending a suitable loan, or by helping them find employment or establish themselves in business so as to make it unnecessary for them to become dependent on others.

As one climbs the ladder, the separation between donor and recipient becomes larger, so that the gift is not for public display (like plaques honoring donors to a hospital wing, University building, or museum), but rather for the greater good.  There are many ways to be anonymous.  One of them is to support programs, both public and private, that either provide immediate relief in cases of personal crisis or natural disaster.  The final rung on the ladder, which embodies rungs four , five, six and seven, is the gift of empowerment and sustainability. It is captured in the proverb “give a man a fish, and he can eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he can eat for a lifetime.” Both immediate relief and empowering sustainability respect the dignity of the recipients. While generosity flows from grace/gratitude, giving in ways that help people to become more independent and empowered are also  expressions of love, trust, and hope.

In this season of thankfulness, may your gratitude find expression in ways that are meaningful, hopeful, and life-affirming.

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