Last month, during Veterans’ Day, an old Army Veteran was selling simple “poppies” near the front entrance of the supermarket. So, I gave him a few bucks and he gave me one of the little paper flowers. I wrapped the wire stem around a pocket button on my jacket and went about my day. That night, I removed the “poppy” and placed it in one of my artificial flower arrangements.
I glanced again at that little paper flower last night. The overthinking, introverted part of me re-enacted the scenario that happened on November eleventh. That morning, I felt pretty pleased with myself for buying the tiny artificial flower. I blush now, thinking about the little bit of conceit I showed by displaying the poppy as some sort of “status symbol”.
More than one philosopher and more than one public relations executive know that very often what passes for generosity is actually just the vanity of appearing generous. We often enjoy the vanity of giving more than any selfless act of giving and sacrifice. Thankfully, most of the time, the gifts given to charity or a non-profit, do end up in the service of needy people.
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love
to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to
be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their full
Some Christian theologians believe that praying in secret is a sign of true piety while publicly praying is an act of vanity. This has a parallel in regards to generosity. This is evident in how I felt after buying the little paper flower. Like everyone else, I want to have a reputation for generosity. Don’t we want to acquire the reputation at bargain basement prices?
The situation of public generosity becomes more complicated when it comes to billionaire-class philanthropic giving. Some wealthy people tend to be quite generous in giving back to society. However, proportionately, their gifts are comparatively modest when compared to middle and lower income givers.
I’m of two opinions about philanthropic organizations named after the benefactors. For instance, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has contributed vast amounts of funding towards worthy causes and needy organizations. While the benefactors do sometimes enjoy having their names attached to the gifts, many other gifts are granted anonymously. Overall, I have a very positive opinion about the Gates Foundation because it continues to perform much needed work around the world.
The gifts that give me pause are the huge grants given to charities and public works anonymously. By my way of thinking, such benefactors are truly generous and genuinely want to pay back society. They are akin to the people who pray in secret, not the people who make a public spectacle of their prayers. Anonymous philanthropists do not distract us with their wish for public recognition of their gifts. Their foundations’ efforts go towards helping society, not towards making a big deal about the people in charge of paying the bills.
There are subtle reminders of this type of thinking on reply cards from many charities that solicit via the mail. A small box can be checked if the giver does not want a token gift or plaque in exchange for the financial gift. I’m sure the charities appreciate not having to send out “thank you gifts” so they can use more of their funds to serve charitable ends.
“He who gives what he would as readily throw away, gives without generosity; for the essence of generosity is in self sacrifice.”–writer and civil servant, Henry Taylor
Thrift store “donations” come to mind when I see Taylor’s insightful proverb. Too often, people use thrift stores like the Salvation Army or Goodwill as alternative refuse stations. These stores must lease large, industrial size dumpsters and buy industrial size trash compactors in order to get rid of the unusable stuff that is “donated” each day. My friends who work at Goodwill have told me about some of the useless items that they receive. Broken, hazardous appliances top the list. Dirty clothes that need laundering are close behind. The store cannot sell appliances that could cause injury or death. The store does not have washers and dryers to launder “donated” clothing.
Appliances that are obviously useless or dangerous are tossed into the garbage. The same garbage dumpster is the destination of obviously stained, dirty, torn garments. The necessity of having vast amounts of trash to be hauled to the dump is costly. The public practice of discarding unsuitable items only increases overhead costs of the thrift store. Hence, giving useless, dangerous junk to charity is not generosity.
All things considered, generosity is a part of being human. We relate on the person-to-person level. We hear, speak, see, and touch one another. Our interactions involve the sharing of things and kindness. Being human can include the values of compassion and generosity. Today is “Giving Tuesday”. This is a day set aside to practice generosity. Our society needs more “holidays” like this; but today is still a good start.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders a quote by pop artist, Nate Lowman. “I’m really interested in the difference between selfishness and generosity. It confuses me to no end because sometimes it all just feels like pure indulgence on my part.”