By Sondra Whitt
What do you usually think of when you hear the word “generosity?” I think of someone who gives of their time, money or other resources to worthy causes or people, usually without expecting anything in return. The dictionary defines generosity as “readiness or liberality in giving; freedom from meanness or smallness of mind or character; a generous act; largeness or fullness.” It isn’t difficult to recognize generosity whether we’re the giver, the receiver or just the observer. But consultant, speaker and author Alan Weiss gave a definition that I’d never before considered in an article on generosity in his newsletter Balancing Act. He was talking about having a spirit of generosity that allows us “to give time, attention, solicited feedback, support, caring, and understanding” — even when that means showing “tough love.”
Weiss makes the point that it’s usually easy to be generous with tangibles and “stuff” because they’re replaceable and we don’t have to get emotionally involved. For example, there’s a big difference between writing a check to an organization and heading a fundraiser for them. Heading the fundraiser takes more generosity because it requires more of a commitment, more emotional involvement. I can easily agree with all of that. Then he drills a little deeper when he writes, “And telling your friend, the organization’s chair, that she is shutting down debate and alienating potential donors is the greatest charity of all.” Why would that be an act of charity or generosity? Because not only would it help your friend to know the truth, it would also help the organization, even though it would be a hard thing for you to do and painful for your friend to hear.
He gets even tougher when he says, “We do grievous harm to people when we lie to them in order to assist them (and, usually ourselves) in trying to maintain certain perceptions.” For example, when a friend asks what I think of the unflattering outfit she’s wearing, I need to tell her the truth. That’s why she asked. But sometimes it’s easier to give someone a quick and easy answer, especially if they’re a stranger. For instance, when the server asks about the meal I just ate, it’s simpler to just say “fine” instead of to explain how it didn’t meet my expectations. As much as I believe in being truthful, Weiss gave me a new perspective on it when he wrote, “Through the commission of lies or the omission of truth, we enable people to perpetuate mistakes, errors, and, too often, self-destruction. Our refusal to get involved when we are friends, insiders, and trusted, is basically a selfish and ungenerous act.” A “selfish and ungenerous act” when I omit the truth? That really made me stop and think. So, for the sake of being “nice” we can actually be doing someone a disservice.
Weiss isn’t saying that we should go out and start critiquing what everyone wears, does, and says. And he’s certainly not saying that every time someone makes a statement we don’t agree with, we should launch into a dissertation about why they’re wrong and we’re right. Everyone has a different perspective and everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But when they ask us what we think, that’s a different story. “All I’m suggesting writes Weiss, “Is that when people expect you to tell them the truth, even if it hurts, you ought to do that.” We can tell the truth when asked and still be kind. And we’re still being generous because we’re exemplifying “readiness or liberality in giving,” as well as “freedom from meanness or smallness of mind or character” — if given in the right spirit and manner.