Not long ago, a group of senior executives asked me to speak to them about generosity. So I started the conversation by asking each of them to share what generosity meant to them.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, but what I heard back were examples of niceties – I volunteered a bit here, I helped someone with something there. It was probably my mistake to open a conversation with a new group and expect that folks would take the opportunity to be vulnerable. I should have laid the groundwork first. Nevertheless, it was telling.
At times I’ve been surprised with negative reactions to talk of generosity and Generosity Day. That day – hearing example after example of nice, kind, but mostly peripheral acts of generosity from a group that I knew had much deeper stories to tell – helped me understand what was going on in a new light.
I’ve been purposely exploring generosity for nearly five years now, and while I humbly admit that my own practice of generosity is still very much a work in process, my points of reference when hearing the word “generosity” are profound, textured, nuanced, and potentially very deep. Generosity and giving are cornerstones of cultural practices dating back thousands of years; they are bedrocks of all the major religions; generosity is one of the five yamas in the eight-limbed path of yoga!
That’s the opposite of small, the antithesis of trite.
Nevertheless, just because that is my experience of generosity does not mean that is what others hear. If someone’s conscious engagement with generosity is limited, when they hear talk of “generosity” their minds can naturally avoid things that are deep, grounded, or profound.
If I could restart the conversation I had with that group of executives, I would ask a different question. Not “what does generosity mean to you?” which somehow got people to talk about when they had been generous, but “when has someone else’s generosity made a difference in your life?” I’ve been amazed with how consistently I hear poignant stories of generosity when people are freed to answer this question. People see others’ better angels. Small, fleeting acts from decades ago are revealed to be seminal milestones in peoples’ lives.
I just heard about an effort to raise $60,000 on Indigogo to produce a movie called The Perfection of Giving. I thought the trailer looked good and that you might want to check it out.
If I have one wish for the project, it would be that it move beyond the more obvious focus – how a practice of generosity transforms the giver – and delve deeper into how acts of generosity changed the lives of recipients (and, equally interesting, to uncover the countless acts of generosity practiced daily by people who do not, by external appearance, seem to have a lot to give). I know all good stories need a protagonist, I just think the message is most powerful when we can share others’ stories, rather than describe our own experience of transformation.
So: when has generosity touched you?