The most profound line I read in Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning has to do with generosity. “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.” Frankl used the line in order to illustrate that we all have a choice to choose our own attitudes regardless of circumstances.
I understand it in that way and I see how those downtrodden prisoners of oppression chose to give away the most precious material things in their possession, morsels of food. That is an act that goes against our very biological urges to survive. Giving away your last piece of bread is a courageous act displaying the virtues of giving and serving others.
We certainly don’t have to be concentration camp inmates in order to give things away. Anyone can do this. There is a simple joy in giving something away. This past spring, I was the lucky recipient of an anonymous fellow Nebraskan at the drive-through lane at a McDonald’s fast-food restaurant in Omaha.
I had decided to stop there to grab a large malted milk to enjoy before driving back home to Norfolk. When I got to the order pick-up window the employee said the driver ahead of me paid for my malt. Wow! What a great surprise. On an impulse, I decided to pay for the order of the person in the car behind me. As I drove away, I wondered if that person paid for the meal for the person behind him. Did that person pay forward or did it end with the person behind me? It’s fun to imagine that the string of generosity happened sequentially to everybody driving through that McDonald’s for several hours. Of course, it probably didn’t.
One of the best things about having my malt paid for by the person ahead of me in the drive-through is the happiness that was triggered. I instantly felt a little bit better about humanity. The positive feelings stayed in the background of my mind during the rest of the 150-mile drive back home.
In my opinion, most of us humans have some sort of elemental instinct to be decent and kind to others. Perhaps this comes about because we are social animals. At some level, we understand the truth that it is improbable for us to survive without the actions of other people. Nearly everything we need or desire comes about through the actions of others.
In today’s rather impersonal world, it’s good to remember our interdependency upon each other. Knowing this, makes generosity seem vitally important in the list of things that build successful civilizations.
Not only does sharing help enable civilization, it is good for the generous person’s life. A 2013 article in the American Journal of Public Health states, “Giving time and assistance to others reduced the mortality risk tied to stress.” We know that chronic stress is unhealthy in many ways and leads to chronic disease.
A Detroit, Michigan area study (adjusting for age, health and other variables) showed stress and mortality were more apparent in individuals who did not voluntarily help other people.
There is one caveat, the generosity must be heartfelt. If the gesture is grudgingly given out of a sense of obligation, expectation of benefits, or if the gift is trivial or insignificant, the benefits don’t happen. Hence, true, authentic altruism can be life-extending. The trick is, don’t be generous in order to live longer; simply follow the basic instinct to be generous with no anticipation of reward.
If you feel inclined towards experimenting with the positive aspects of generosity, tomorrow might be a good day to try. Tomorrow is Give Something Away Day. We can plan ways to commemorate this unofficial holiday.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes philosopher author Mortimer Adler. “Love consists in giving without getting in return; in giving what is not owed, what is not due the other. That’s why true love is never based, as associations for utility or pleasure are, on a fair exchange.”