The word “generosity” was first recorded in the 15th century and comes from the Latin “generōsus,” meaning “of noble birth.” “Gentle” and “gentleman” are derived from the same root. It used to refer to aristocrats but later described noble qualities that aristocrats were expected to exhibit, such as being fair minded. Now, of course, generosity means giving to others, although it is not the same as charity. Generosity is the willingness to give regardless of the situation or outcome. Charity tends to refer to giving to those in need.
To me, generosity leans closer to “Random Acts of Kindness” in that giving is its own reward and that intention is more important than reciprocity. You might give someone a gift out of the kindness of your heart and later find out they don’t like it and they gave it away or, worse yet, sold it on eBay! Has your generosity gone to waste? No.
Your aim to be generous without strings attached has meaning. Having good intentions is a mark of grace, which appears when you do something good for another, which can initiate a chain reaction like tipping the first domino. If generosity in this sense means altruism — unselfish regard for or devotion to the welfare of others — then one ought to never deny anyone the opportunity to be generous.
Accepting someone’s gift, regardless of the size or worth, is a courageous act of generosity, which can be humbling, especially when you give nothing but your gratitude in return. I agree wholeheartedly with John Bunyan, author of “The Pilgrim’s Progress:” “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” Nothing is ever too small to belong to that category.
When you “accidentally” leave a quarter on a park bench, you can bet that the person who finds it will smile and that could begin the momentum of graced actions. Your generosity has brought life to countless people. Chaos theory in physics tells us that everything affects everything else. When a butterfly flaps its wings in Argentina, it can cause a tornado in Texas.
I recently watched a short video involving a grizzled-looking elderly man sitting shirtless in a cold New York subway. He might have been homeless. After a bit, another man got up and gave him his jacket, helping him put it on. A few seconds later, another man walked over to hand him a sandwich. Finally, a woman sitting next to him took out some tissues and wiped his hands so he could have a better experience eating. The generosity of the first man gave permission to other passengers to also help. I doubt any of them expected anything in return.
After Jesus preached the Beatitudes, he said “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38). Sometimes this passage is interpreted to mean that the amount you give away is the amount you will get back. But that’s not how I see it. When you are generous, your heart grows bigger, in a way like the Grinch when he returned all the Whos’ Christmas things.
St. Ignatius of Loyola prayed: “Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous. Teach me to serve you as you deserve. To give and not count the cost. To fight and not to heed the wounds. To toil and not to seek for rest. To labor and not to seek reward except that of knowing that I do your will.”
(Kathy Berken is a spiritual director and retreat leader in St. Paul, Minnesota. She lived and worked at L’Arche in Clinton — The Arch from 1999-2009.)