A recent assignment to lead a church discussion on “Creating a Culture of Generosity” led to some reflection on a familiar topic that yielded (for me, at least) a new way of thinking about it.
When children are small, we prompt them to engage in deeds of generosity by sharing and experiencing the awareness of others’ needs and desires.
These deeds become the building blocks of a growing sense of being part of a community and of the long, slow move from self-centeredness toward healthy relationships.
When our now-very-generous adult granddaughter was a toddler, she responded to some encouragement to share a toy with a visiting friend.
“I don’t know an activity called ‘sharing.’ I call it ‘bothering.'” The first steps on the path of generosity are often not easy.
With adolescents, we encourage the development of habits of generosity, internalizing the practices in ways that enable them to be part of who we are.
The growth step from doing generous deeds to being a generous person is a significant one.
We give of ourselves and our resources not because we are required or supposed to, but because this is the kind of person we want to be.
I had not thought much beyond this stage of generosity – being a generous person and letting that feature of who I aspire to be guide my stewardship of resources: time, energy, money, abilities.
Then, reflecting on my assigned topic – creating a culture of generosity – I began to see that there is another level to this development.
It is good and necessary to learn to engage in generous deeds – what we might call the “childhood of generosity.”
And, it is good and necessary to encourage the development of generous habits – what we might call the “adolescence of generosity.”
But, just as it is possible to perform acts of generosity without internalizing its motivation into a perspective and commitment, it is also possible to develop habits of generosity (becoming a “generous person”) without embracing the opportunity and responsibility of seeking to develop a “culture” of generosity in which the collective spirit of a community, large or small, is characterized more by generosity than by any of its several opposites.
I wonder if we might think of the “adulthood of generosity” as embracing that commitment to be, do and support the kinds of things that make the operative spirit of a community one that models this virtue in such a way that there is natural support for the development we would wish for those who are growing up in it.
The “adults” in a family spend every conscious moment creating an environment that supports the best of what they hope for their children.
Those children internalize the guidance of that environment and move through adolescence toward adulthood as personifications of that hope.
How often, especially recently, have we wished for some “adult” behavior in our collective life, where decisions are being made about what kind of “culture” we will create by our choices?
The adults of a society will either model and support the virtue of generosity, or they will model and support the kind of self-centeredness that is its opposite.
Creating a culture of generosity, it seems, goes beyond the stage of being a generous person to embracing the responsibility of developing, supporting and preserving the structures and policies of a community that gives priority to serving a common good over the protection of a limited privilege.
We see glimpses of what a culture of generosity would be like in response to large-scale crises and catastrophes. The outpouring of assistance to relieve the suffering of disasters is obvious and commendable.
We also see resistance to collective help to less spectacular but no less real crises, when that help implies some adjustment in what has been a comfortable and secure set of circumstances.
“I don’t know an activity called ‘sharing.’ I call it ‘bothering.'”
It is something of an irony that we can be quite generous personally and, at the same time, promote and shape a culture that resists its development as a characteristic of our common life.
Perhaps we can hope that our generosity will embrace its own adulthood and accept the responsibility for creating a culture that will reflect the character that we hope for our children.
It may be a long shot, but that seems to be where active hope does some of its best work.
Colin Harris is professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia.