In the first part of this two part series about where we learn our attitudes about good and bad, I discussed the “interventionist school” of Christianity, a narrative that teaches the followers of Christianity that all of our notions of good and evil are created or altered by an interventionist deity through grace, epiphanies, miracles, the handing down of the “ten commandments,” the incarnation of Christ, and a divinely inspired Biblical text.

The interventionist school of Christianity has been the guiding model of Western Christian morality for centuries. It is a model that relies heavily on a Church hierarchy and ancient texts (the Old and New Testament) as the icons of moral authority.

The Catholic Church goes even further in portraying itself as the recipient of powers to round out all of the intricacies of sin, morality, and faith-beliefs through a clerical hierarchy, which, according to the church’s narrative, is a direct descendent of St. Peter, the alleged first appointed leader of Christ’s followers.

There are many of us, however, who believe that morality can be gleaned from many sources other than a theistic or religious institutional model. Although most religions seem to adhere to some version of the do-unto-others golden rule, I believe that generosity is often at the root of all of our optimal behavior patterns.

I would even suggest that generosity, the ability to open ourselves to radical forms of giving (time, financial assistance, listening, sharing, gift-giving, physical affection), is probably one of the most dominant attributes of those who lead moral and principled lives.

I have been thinking a lot, lately, about generosity. It is a quality I have admired in those who invite you dinner, prepare sumptuous six-course dinners, filling the house with odors of herbs and spices. They always seem to grind exotic coffee beans and then manage to pull delicately crusted pastries out of the oven about five minutes after the table is cleared.

Those I have known who have the spirit of generosity always seem to have their wallets open. They are transparent to a fault. They are the first to offer you a ride when your car breaks down. They are always volunteering to watch your kids in an emergency. They don’t argue about a check, even if they haven’t had any wine.

I am not sure how one becomes generous. I am also not sure whether generosity registers on the moral meter of those in orthodox religions. I don’t ever remember Buddha, Christ, Confucius, Allah, or the religious Brahmins talking about generosity. Yes, they all seem to agree on some form of golden rule in the form of love-thy-neighbor, service, compassion. And Christianity even espouses loving an enemy, at least in the abstract.

But none of them get too specific about the kind of overflowing generosity of spirit that goes beyond formulaic tithing, alms-giving, or second collections—most of which are inside jobs since they are reservoirs of self-sustaining moneys to keep a church or congregation up and running.

And none view generosity as a sensual act of emptying the wine cellar or depleting a savings account for the last thrill of just being alive.

A generous spirit, in my judgment, is a very forgiving spirit. It is not rushed in an express line. It does not go for the horn when someone passes on the inside lane. It does not scream “asshole” at the least provocation. It does not call to remind a friend of an outstanding loan. It is willing to accept a gay son’s lover at the dinner table.

Generosity, to me, has always had a kind of Whitmanesque, expansive quality that can drive the cautious crazy. The cautious in us too often suspects a hidden agenda, looks for flaws, or waits for the other shoe to fall.

Cautious people do not like to risk. They play close to the vest. They get uncomfortable without a plan. They find spontaneity too frenzied. They measure you by tight standards. They want to know everything ahead of time. They love waiting in the shadows for someone to make a fool of themselves, for an actor to miss a line, a singer to forget a verse, a politician to get a statistic wrong.

Generous people, on the other hand, tend to look at the big picture, the overarching significance of an action or an event. They weigh your worth on very big scales. They overlook your mistakes. They find some aspect of you worth loving. They are perfectly willing to give you the last dollar out of their wallets.

Those who are generous seem to have a heavy dose of self-worth and self-love. And they have often been through the meat-grinder of tragedy in their lives and know what’s really important. (I readily admit, however, that many who are hit by tragedy end up being pulpit-driven moralists always out to teach a lesson to the uninitiated. These moralists, from my experience, have always suffered from self-importance and, too often, view generosity as profligate and misdirected.)

Now, no church or Biblical text has given me much direction on being generous. I mean really generous. Not the kind of exclusive generosity that always works within the realm of the comfortable or within the worlds of the like-minded.

So, where did I learn about generosity? Well, I am a people-watcher. I have seen nurses in hospitals smilingly spend that extra five minutes with a patient. I have overheard a medical clinic receptionist patiently explaining heath-insurance co-payments to an angry patient. I have observed a friend put down his paper and listen intently to what I’m sharing—without looking at his cell phone. I have felt the abundant compassion of a hospice worker when she walks into a patient’s room. I have heard the caring voice of a doctor telling me that my artery occlusion will be “technically challenging.” And I will always remember a friend who took me in to his apartment when I openly admitted I was afraid to be by myself.

“The world is my teacher.” That’s my story. And I’m sticking to it.


 (Writing, as many of you know, is an art. It is also a profession, a career that, because of the internet, may give the impression of being more of a lite-weight hobby than a serious pursuit. If you believe, as I do, that good writing is hard work and deserves to be compensated, please consider donating to this site. Thanks.)


6 Responses to Generosity

  • Dear John, I read your thesis on GENEROSITY on this glorious early Florida morning. It resurrects so many personal experiences where unsolicited kindnesses made such a difference in my going forward. You may not know that my dear Marvin suffered an acute stroke in 2003, which drove us to Florida for what recovery was possible.Earlier in life, my oldest child, Dean had a complete psychotic break at the age of 14 and became a frightening and uncontrollable wraith, nearly killing us all. As a potter, I deal with transformation….the irreversible passage of matter to an altered state,in my work, to glowing lusters on a hardened clay field. Both Dean and Marvin have been transformed, both still alive, and I along with them. On this long road as caregiver, it is the generosity of friends and strangers, small and large acts, often done by those on the lower end of the social strata as well as nurses, doctors,therapists, aides and family that have kept me sane, and, perhaps given my work some inspiration and symbolism.I look for these little miracles and step over the indifferences ,exclusions, and mendacity that seem to be also a part of my life’s fabric. Thanks for putting it all in your resonate language, John. Fondly Gail McCarthy

    • John T Marohn says:

      Gail, OMG, what a small world we live in with Internet.

      What a beautiful connection you made between personal transformation and the transformative aspect of your pottery as “the irreversible passage of matter to an altered state”….very powerful.

      I remember how you and your family struggled with your son’s “psychotic breakdown,” a horrific time in your life. And, I had somehow found out about Marvin’s stroke. I am so happy that the “generosity” of friends, nurses, doctors…..they’re all out there, it seems, when we open ourselves to that generosity, not always an easy thing for me.

      Thanks again for sharing. Affectionately, John

  • My experience has lead me to believe that often, moral behavior is doing good to others because “the system” promised that doing good will be done in return. Paying it forward implies that. Circles of friends imply that. Interdependence and co-dependence may be a good survival technique; I would not call it moral behavior or generosity. We have to give and expect nothing in return, accommodate the other so that life gets easier for him or her, difficulties can be resolved, self-esteem can be restored and, indeed, the same can be done by him or her to others. Essential for true generosity is that this happens unconditionally and without dependency upon the group.

    • John T Marohn says:

      Yes, I agree that we ought not to be doing good for others because we expect others to return our generosity. “Unconditional generosity” should be what it’s all about, as you so eloquently point out.

      I was speaking more about the danger of living in a world of complete self-interest.

      Thanks so much for taking the time to respond.

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