It is greed that impoverishes us, not generosity.
Giving ourselves in this way epitomizes the virtue of generosity. The perfect example of generosity is God the Creator. By means of His generosity, He generates man in His image. For Christians, God's gift of Himself through Christ represents the ultimate form of generosity, and serves as a model for all human generosity.
Because God creates — or generates — man in His image out of His own generosity, a dynamic impulse toward generosity is implanted in the depth of man's being. As a consequence, to live authentically means to give generously. Personality and generosity, therefore, are virtually synonymous. To live authentically is to give generously of oneself. The great Thomistic philosopher, Jacques Maritain, underscored this unification of personality with generosity when he wrote: "Do not heroes and saints impress us as men who have reached the heights of personality as well as generosity?"
When a person is in touch with the depths of himself, he realizes that at the very center of his being, coincidental with his existence, is the impulse toward generosity. To be is to give; to be fulfilled is to have given generously. The very meaning of life is inseparable from generosity.
Everyone recognizes that generosity is more admirable than greed, and more beautiful, more original, more authentic, and more humane. The fact that greed is as common as it is indicates that human beings can be estranged from themselves while trying to live a life that is alien to them.
Since the time of Socrates, philosophers have been reiterating the essential importance of distinguishing between the order of being and having. Martin Buber wrote beautifully about the "I-Thou" relationship that cultivates our being, or our humanness, and the "I-It" relationship that allows us to have those things that allow us to live. Without "I-It" we cannot live, but without "I-Thou" we cannot be human. Things cannot humanize us, only generous love can.
Greed, the antithesis of generosity and the negation of personal being, enters the picture when our attachment to the things we can have displaces our awareness of our own being. But no amount of having can ever make up for a neglect of being. A form of frenzied addiction ensues when a person believes that if he could only have more of something, he would be able to quench his thirst. Unfortunately, the logic of greed is such that the appetite grows on what it feeds. This is the diabolical phenomenon that Shakespeare describes in Macbeth when he has Malcolm say: "[M]y more having would be a sauce to make me hunger more."
Nothing exceeds like excess! Greed becomes more avaricious the more it has. This paradoxical effect is connected with the fact that a person becomes increasingly frustrated the more he ignores his own fundamental capacity for generosity.
Literary characters such as King Midas, Silas Marner, Ebenezer Scrooge, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, are driven by greed in such a way that the more greedy they become, the less human they appear. The conversions of Midas, Marner, Scrooge, and the Grinch are, in effect, returns to humanity, and are met by readers with great jubilation. Generous people are not only more likeable than their greedy counterparts, but they appear to be more human, more real.
A wealthy man can easily become a displaced person, alienated from himself, if he takes his riches too seriously. Plato warned long ago that we should bequeath to our children not riches but reverence. Sigmund Freud explained that wealth never makes a man happy because it does not correspond to a basic human drive. None of us comes into the world with a desire to make money. The impulse to have does not originate in our being.
On the other hand, a poor man, who is in touch with the fundamental generosity of his existence, can be productive, happy, and at peace with himself. It is more blessed to give than to receive; but it is far more blessed to give than to take. In the final analysis, we cannot take with us what we have. Greed is an affliction of the dispossessed. Generosity is the plentitude of the self-possessed.
Maurice Sendak has written a charming little book for children called Higglety Pigglety Pop! Or There Must Be More To Life. In the story, the owners of Jennie the dog have given her everything. Yet she decides: "There must be more to life than having everything." She leaves home and loses all she has, but instead becomes the leading star of a theatrical production, to her great contentment. The point is made only too clear, even for ten-year-olds, that happiness depends not on how much we have, but on who we are. Being is more primary than having. And at the center of our being is the divinely implanted impulse to give and to be generous.
To the calculating mind, being generous seems to be costly. To the generous heart, being greedy seems incomprehensible. It is greed that impoverishes us, not generosity. True generosity, indeed, enriches us a hundredfold. There is a superabundance within each of us. Not to release it costs us who we are. Nothing, therefore, is more costly than greed; nothing is more rewarding than generosity.
Donald DeMarco. "Generosity." from The Many Faces of Virtue (Steubenville, OH: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2000): 181-184.
This article is reprinted with permission from Emmaus Road Publishing and Donald DeMarco.
Copyright © 2012 Emmaus Road Publishing