Giving is hard. According to many evolutionary psychologists, including Dacher Keltner, of the Greater Good Science Center, we are born to be good. Altruism and sharing are part of our makeup. Nonetheless, giving to others is not a cinch. We struggle with it. Just look at all the angst that surrounds our annual “season of giving.”
To be truly generous requires us to step beyond the self-protected bubble we create for ourselves. Just think about it. So many decisions we make during the day—what to eat, what to wear, when to do this, that, and the other thing, with whom, for how long, etc., etc.—serve our own version of things and reinforce the notion that we are in charge. Going beyond that bubble takes us into a zone where others’ needs may supersede our own. And that puts some pressure on the whole I’m-in-charge system we’re hardwiring into place most of the time during our day. And even when we do give, if we’re not careful, we give in a way that serves our own needs. Ever receive a gift that said much more about what someone else thought you should have than what you needed or wanted?
To be truly generous requires us to step beyond the self-protected bubble we create for ourselves. So many decisions we make during the day serve our own version of things and reinforce the notion that we are in charge. Going beyond that bubble takes us into a zone where others’ needs may supersede our own.
When it comes to giving, particularly during the holidays, we tend to think in terms of material things. Things are great to give, for sure. They can bring delight or surprise. They can provide someone with something they would never splurge on for themselves or something they genuinely need that is beyond their means. We all have a special object or two we cherish because of its special value but also because someone gave it to us in a time that counted.
Yet there is another class of giving that is harder for us but can have greater impact. This kind of giving involves giving part of ourselves to contribute to what someone needs in life. If someone is in pain, we find a way to provide some relief. Maybe they need us to spend time with their child while they get some badly needed rest. It could be the gift of encouragement, helping someone find the natural confidence within themselves in a time of self-flagellation. Maybe we just take the time to listen. When we give of ourselves, though, there is always the danger that we don’t leave our own I’m-in-charge space and in fact impose our will on someone else who has become our do-gooder project. The greatest gift we can give then is genuine mindfulness. When real attentiveness emerges in our life, beyond mere self-help, it’s naturally contagious, and generous.
At a still deeper level we may even be able to offer insight—we can all think of a friend who helped us to see through the fog to something true, even if painfully true. And the great thing about the gift of insight is that, if it’s genuine and undogmatic, it emerges simultaneously for the giver and receiver, and dissolves the boundary between the two.
May we all find generosity at every level this holiday season. We all need it. And we all have it to give.