“You do not have to be rich to be generous.” – Anonymous
What do we mean when we say that someone is generous? Does it mean we automatically crown the person who has given $5 million to fund the new wing of a hospital as our most generous person of the year? It could mean that, I suppose.
But suppose the person giving away such money is merely needing to take a tax deduction and then demands their name on the edifice? Would your thoughts on that person’s generosity change?
Let’s go a level deeper. Suppose the billionaire made their money by being a slumlord and displaced many families? What then? Would you still call that person generous if they donated their money?
Recently, we witnessed scandals where extremely wealthy people were caught doing unspeakable things. Every one of those people was labeled a “philanthropist.” Would we now praise their generosity?
Let’s compare and contrast those thoughts to a woman named Osceola McCarty, a single washerwoman from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Have you heard her story? Ms. McCarty was born into heartbreaking poverty. Over the years, she was paid in nickels, dimes, quarters, and crumpled dollars for scrubbing the clothes of wealthy people. She accumulated $280,000 in savings.
Osceola McCarty never had children, but toward the end of her life, she donated $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for needy students. When the alumni office heard about it (she was never a student), contributions poured in, and Ms. McCarty’s bequest tripled. The fund has grown from that point.
Such is the power of unbridled generosity.
Interesting, Very Interesting
To me, the most remarkable part about the quotation I placed at the top of this blog isn’t the quotation at all, but the fact that it was anonymously written. The person who wrote it did so without expecting recognition from any one of the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who might read and reflect upon it.
The ancients of religious thought, Maimonides being the most famous, identified eight levels of charity. The highest level is giving anonymously. Close behind, is giving where the donor has no idea who will benefit, and the person receiving has no idea who donated it.
Does this mean that for generosity to exist in this world that it must always be anonymous? Not at all. Neither the billionaire who funds a hospital nor an incredible human being like Ms. McCarty must be invisible in their generosity, but generosity does require an open heart.
Going back to the billionaire, suppose they had a grandchild they deeply loved who died of childhood cancer? Suppose they made it a point to fund a pediatric hospital ward out of grief and deep purpose? Would their pain be any more or less valid than the laborer who also donated $100 to the hospital in honor of their child who also lost his life to cancer? Generosity is not based on amounts.
Generosity many take on many different forms, but findings on the subject of charity agree that real generosity must occur in an atmosphere without expectation.
A Way of Life
Every one of us has it within our grasp to be generous. And, for the most part, I am sure that many of us are generous every day without knowing it.
This past week alone, I observed several acts of generosity. I witnessed the Chick-fil-A restaurant patron who anonymously paid for the meal of an older couple, the man who loaded a pregnant woman’s groceries into her car and the neighbor who carted the garbage and recycling cans for the neighbor who was on vacation.
In each case, there was no expectation of gratitude. In each case, I am confident, those who were being generous came away from the experience more empowered and more optimistic toward life.
There is a touching picture of Ms. McCarty hugging the first of her needy scholarship students (Ms. McCarty passed shortly after). At that moment, she stood on an incredible mountain top. In that instant, the childless washerwoman helped a child who would never have a chance to repay her personally.
Perhaps the most generous thing we can do is to teach the children in our lives the sheer joy of doing unto others. Life is short, and it is precious, but what makes it distinctive is what we GIVE.