People often have their generosity abused. One reason for this is that there are people who will abuse your generosity. But there is another; your vulnerability to such abuse is sometimes a consequence of your own lack of clarity. For we often confuse two different types of generosity: reciprocal versus unconditional. When you are clear about the difference you can protect yourself better and feel less hurt, while living according to your better values. The point of today's reflection is to clarify this difference.
We practice reciprocal generosity as a way of creating a good, shared life. According to this type you are generous because you value generosity, but a part of what you value in it is that it will be returned in kind - will be reciprocated. Done properly, this is not merely calculative, as though done only for the sake of a selfish reward. Rather the person who truly practices this generosity does so because they desire to live this generous kind of life with others. They see it as good in itself. This is the generosity which you see on show in healthy relationships - couples, families, friendships, communities. It brings both joy and security to our lives, binding us together in good ways.
Unconditional generosity on the other hand is performed with no expectation of return. n this case you believe in practising generosity no matter what. It is not conditional on whether another reciprocates, it is not dependent on how other people behave. In fact you are generous even when there is no possibility of reciprocation, and even when you know you may be spurned. People practise this kind of generosity because they believe that it gives life greater meaning. This is the social worker who makes the effort regardless of how she is viewed by those he helps. This is the person who, when her generosity is abused and her partner responds with anger, responds that she will do what she knows is good regardless of what others choose to do. Properly practised, this form of generosity gives a certain meaning to life which is independent of how others behave. It can be quite noble, beautiful, and liberating.
Most people value the first sort, and while less people do, many also value the second. However in the second case so many of these people do not realise that they do, but their actions show it. Hence, many of us practice both kinds of generosity. Our lack of self-awareness can be a problem however. It is often the reason we become depressed when our generosity is abused. For people can act according to both kinds of generosity at once without realising it. Or they act according to one motivation - say reciprocal - while naming it to themselves as the other - say unconditional - and vice versa. In either case there is a confusion between the types. They then feel taken advantage of, because they are motivated by reciprocal motivation, while wrongly telling themselves that they are acting on unconditional generosity. Because they are actually acting according to reciprocal generosity, they become angry when it is not returned. But because they believe their motivation is unconditional, they refuse to accept their anger and so they turn it on themselves. Anger turned inward is depression. "I feel like an idiot. I let people take advantage of me. And I shouldn't feel this way, because when I gave I am not seeking a return." Yes you are! And that's fine....
What we need is to be clear with ourselves about the form of generosity we are practising. We also have to realise that if we carry both motivations, and our kindness is betrayed, that our suffering will be a tangle involving the two. We need to untangle them. Then we can recognise the legitimacy of our grievance, while placing it alongside the assertion of our unconditional ethic. This might mean we have two emotions happening, but so long as we are clear about them we can navigate them. And we can make choices about them. And so we can live according to our better values, and enjoy the better feelings that follow. You cannot control what others do, but you can control your perspective, and keep your head and heart focused on doing good, and enjoy the deeper sense of meaning that comes with trying to live well.
Artwork: Rosemarie Adcock