Most of us want to be generous, but don't know how to balance it with self-protection. The question needs to be understood at the general level - which is to say philosophically - and at the individual level - taking into account who you are and the situation you face. This is a philosophical reflection on part of the answer. To steer yourself through life you need to see things clearly. People often confuse two types of generosity, and that leads them to having their generosity abused, or at least to becoming resentful. It undermines the strong, generous person they want to become. So today I try to clarify these two types of generosity.
The two types of generosity which I often see people confuse, I will call reciprocal, and unconditional.
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 that is that it will be returned in kind - it will be reciprocated. Done properly, this is not merely calculative, as though motivated only by selfish reward. Rather, the person who practices this generosity does so because they want to share in this good way of life with others. This is the generosity that you see in healthy relationships - couples, families, friendships, communities. It brings both joy and security to our lives, and leads to group flourishing.
Unconditional generosity on the other hand is performed with no expectation of return. In this case, a person believes 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 mistreated in return. 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 or by those in authority. Properly practised, this form of generosity gives a certain meaning to life which can be quite noble, beautiful, and liberating. "This is who I am, this is how I choose to live, this is the person I make of myself, regardless of what others do."
Most people value the first sort, and while less do so, many also value the second. Not that people necessarily articulate these things to themselves or others - many just act in a certain way which fits one of these descriptions. Of course, many of us practice both kinds of generosity, depending on the situation. Our lack of self-awareness of the difference can be a problem, however. 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 - unconditional. Or vice versa. In either case there is a confusion between the types. And at this point negative things can happen.
People can feel taken advantage of because, for example, they tell themselves that they are motivated by unconditional generosity, where in fact emotionally they are motivated by the reciprocal sort. When the other does not reciprocate, they feel used.
In this situation people can become angry toward the other, and this can become a personality trait: they become resentful. But they can also turn the anger inward: because they believe their motivation is unconditional, they view their anger as wrong, and so they become angry at themselves. "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." Anger turned inwards in self-blame, self-loathing, guilt, and it can become depression.
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 have both motivations mixed together, and our kindness is not returned, then our reaction will reflect the fact that inside us is a thread woven out of both. We may 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 that we have two emotions mixing together, but so long as we are clear about them then we can navigate them.
And this inward clarity is the launching pad to setting clear boundaries and acting with strength.
Artwork: Rosemarie Adcock