“To be generous means giving something that is valuable to you without expectation of reward or return. Many traditions measure generosity not by the size of the gift, but by what it cost the giver.”
For awhile I have been pondering the topic of generosity, wanting to share some reflections – and I might still do that. However, in the meantime, I am delighted to share reflections from my good friend Bob Wing, Warrior of the Heart Sensei and Art of Hosting Steward. I resonate with much of what he wrote in response to an email thread on this topic and delight in how he is sharing his reflections through story.
I asked him if he would be willing to guest blog here on Shape Shift and he agreed. He is my very first guest blogger and this is what he wrote:
I have some experiences and thoughts I would like to share, though they raise more questions for me than answers.
A true story about generosity:
I learned something of generosity years ago, in a liquor store. I was in the check out line to buy some good beer. I remember it as being Guinness Stout. There happened to be two men in front of me, also waiting. One of them, a Native American (most likely a Lakota), asked me what kind of beer I had and what it was like. Well, you can’t really just tell someone what Guinness is like, so with a great sense of generosity and a very good feeling about myself, I gave him one.
It surprised me how reluctant he was to accept my gift. It actually took some coaxing. Finally he would only accept it if I would receive one of his Coors beers in return. Compared to Guinness, I find Coors quite anemic and I didn’t really want it. In that moment, however, I realized that genuine generosity lay in me letting him give me something in return … a trade …not a gift… and then he could leave without a feeling of obligation to me. My real generosity was in accepting his equality by allowing him to give me something in return.
Another true story about generosity:
In the early 1980’s I knew of a small group of very respected Lakota medicine people who had been invited to tour places in Europe to bring their “medicine” and to lead healing ceremony for whomever wanted to come. Their travel had been paid by sponsors but by tradition they could not/would not receive any money for their work. Medicine, both physical and spiritual, is held to be a gift and not a business.
The problem arose when most everyone who came saw it as being “free” and failed to offer gifts in return. While the medicine people could not “charge”, they did expect (this also by tradition) that their generosity would be met with material generosity in return. A medicine person does, after all, also need to support his life and his family, so it is important there be a way to do that, or the medicine/generosity-based culture crumbles. In their traditional culture everyone understands this and so are as generous as they can be in return.
What finally happened was that after continually not getting anything in return the “medicine stopped flowing”. They perceived not getting anything worthy in return as being neglected, devalued, and even insulted. They stopped doing anything real. I think it was a misunderstanding of cultures, not so much of Native American and European, as of business culture and gifting culture misunderstanding each other.
Some ideas on generosity:
Gift culture is based on openness to a return and business culture is based on demanding a return, though maybe they are not really so different in essence. In both, if the return is not at least of some equality, then each will soon stop functioning–the medicine will stop flowing.
However, the language and gesture of each seems to be so very different. Maybe the difference involves who is perceived as having responsibility for seeing to the equity. In a gift culture, the responsibility for equity of the return is usually with the receiver of the medicine, and in business culture the responsibility for the equity of a return is usually with the giver of the medicine.
Also, I think that business culture tends to promote separateness and gift culture tends to support relatedness. In our culture, business culture seems most dominant, though I suspect that the basis for keeping a sense of relatedness, even in business, is actually an expression of gift culture. It may come from the sense most humans have of needing to be related to others.
Personal awareness of generosity:
I am aware that I am in love with gift culture and I suspect most of us are. I love being generous as I suspect most of us do. I love having the means to be generous in all ways, although I don’t always seem to have these means. It’s a quandary.
A big problem for me sometimes comes in my skillfulness to communicate my needs in a culture where people most often seem to act as though it is either “free” or it “costs”, maybe similar to the essence of the problem the Lakota Medicine people had. When I sense that I’m not in some way being gifted enough in return, my “medicine” stops flowing. I don’t like it when that happens. I search for good ways to travel between these two. I like the saying I’ve heard many times before and have really taken to heart, “I don’t work for money, but I do accept money for my work.”
And this, to me, is some of the crux of what we meet up with when the work we do is for the good of ourselves and others, to shift the shape of patterns that no longer serve and generate new patterns that serve us better. How do we value this important work in the world and not feel embarrassed or awkward about being paid well for the work? What is the spirit of generosity and reciprocity that creates expansion and openings for things to flow in the best of ways and continues to make what we offer widely available, recognizing various capacities to be financially generous and knowing that generosity shows up in other ways too?
Thank you, Bob Wing, for your willingness to have your reflections shared here.