Marlena Fiol, author of the upcoming Nothing Bad Between Us, has written a new blog post on the dark side of giving.
Our guest on this week’s podcast was Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, and author of Our Better Angels: Seven Simple Virtues That Will Change Your Life.
One of the virtues Jonathan writes about is generosity. It is, in fact, one of the pillars of the Habitat for Humanity model.
Generosity comes in many forms, from charitable donations and formal volunteering, to simply helping an old man descend steps on rough terrain, as in the photo above. What these all have in common is that they involve “giving good things to others freely and abundantly” — the definition of generosity according to the University of Notre Dame’s Science of Generosity Project.
By contrast, Jonathan writes that even when it’s not given freely, even when it’s forced, generosity is “a powerful balm for the giver and the receiver. When we give time, resources, energy, we become less important. It’s downright freeing.”
I asked Jonathan how generosity could possibly be freeing for me or for anyone else if it was forced upon me. Might not the inauthenticity of such giving devalue the act and lead to resentment rather than freedom — making it, in fact, a dark side of giving?
Jonathan’s response: “I’ve run into so many people for whom even if they went into it grudgingly, the generous act opened their eyes. Maybe it was the first time they’d actually gotten a look at how others live. And that sort of experience can be the spark that starts a fire and starts a movement.”
A New York Times article describes this kind of experience in a high school requiring students to perform forty hours of community service in order to graduate. According to one of the students:
‘’If it was not mandatory, I never would have looked into doing it,’’ she said. ‘’But once I started, I liked it. And I have continued doing it because I realize how important it is to help other people. It has been very fulfilling for me.’’
This does not seem like a dark side of giving.
Paradoxically, it turns out that the true dark and dishonorable underbelly of generosity is usually the result of completely voluntary acts of giving.
Here are some of the ways that my voluntary giving can be vicious rather than virtuous:
- I act generously with the expectation that my generosity will be reciprocated, thereby in fact attempting to control and manipulate others. This kind of giving has strings attached and often leads to score-keeping that is anything but freeing.
- Or maybe I act generously in order to make myself feel better, perhaps even believing that I will only be liked if I continue to give and to do things for other people. Such low self-esteem will certainly get in the way of my sense of freedom.
- I think the darkest side of generosity is giving to make a show of being a martyr, my selflessness prominently on display for all to admire. In this case, my seeming generosity is nothing short of narcissism.
So, while forced giving may often lead to healing and growth — and yes, even freedom — the dark side most frequently involves completely voluntary giving. It’s the selfish place we choose to go that inevitably pulls us under, leading to resentment, exhaustion, and/or depression.
The mental health benefits of giving are well documented. Research has shown that providing a service to others makes us happier and healthier, and it can even stimulate the generosity of those around us. When we give, we are less isolated and more connected to our communities and to issues greater than ourselves. Giving can truly result in greater joy and a more meaningful life.
But none of these benefits will come to me if I voluntarily give 1) in order to control others, 2) because I believe I am undeserving unless I do, or 3) because I want to selfishly show off. These types of giving will only engender resentment, anger and disappointment.
I love this reflection on generosity from the Metta Center: “True generosity is often described as the act of recognizing the mutual dignity inherent in all life, and then subsequently working to balance the ongoing, and evolving, empowerment of all life.”
Giving of myself with a belief in our mutual dignity may be the best way for me to experience the benefits of generosity while avoiding falling into the pitfalls of the dark side of giving.
Habitat does this so well. In Jonathan Reckford’s words:
“Habitat for Humanity is a perpetual motion miracle. Everyone who gives receives and everyone who receives gives. If you want to stay complacent and uninspired, stay away from Habitat. Come close to Habitat and it will change you and make you a part of changing the world.”
A Mennonite Missionary’s Daughter Finds Healing in Her Brokenness
This story differs from similar accounts of childhood domination or abuse because it tells the story of the author’s seemingly paradoxical responses to the powerful forces in my life, but doesn’t leave it at that. It sheds light on the social and religious dynamics underlying these responses, giving readers insights into and understanding of her otherwise incomprehensible choices, as she found my way back into loving relationships with her parents and the Mennonite community.