In October, SFGate, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle, published a story entitled “The 20 Most Generous People in the World.” Finding and featuring the biggest-hearted residents of our globe is a worthy journalistic endeavor, but for the author of this story, there was only one measurement of generosity: money.
Although monetary donations can certainly be generous, when we make money the sole measure of generosity, we devalue the most important traits that bind us together: service, sacrifice, compassion, and caring. The negative effects of this money-focused stance cascade through society today.
There are a number of ways to confront the mainstream news media’s destructive conflation of wealth and generosity. One would be a political response, noting the dodgy origins of the riches of the top twenty and describing destructive activities attached to their giving. For example, one of the twenty, Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi of Saudi Arabia, has been accused of financing Islamist terror organizations with his philanthropy. Closer to home, another member of the list, Eli Broad, has been colluding with the heirs to the Walmart fortune and other foundations to expand privately managed charter schools in Los Angeles to include nearly one-half of the city’s children. If successful, this philanthropy, aided by tax breaks, will leave Los Angeles public schools reeling, removing resources and disempowering teachers. This may be philanthropy, but it is not generosity.
In truth, generosity is a fundamental part of what makes us human and an important factor in the evolutionary rise of our species, stemming from the natural compassion we have for others. When giving our time and energy, we sacrifice for the good of others and to the collective. Generosity, given and received, holds our families and friends together and is the glue of social support in our fractious society. It helps build a compassionate whole, neutralizing the fear and hate we feel and see on our computer screens and televisions.
When we look at our fellow humans, we can constantly appreciate acts of generosity. Simply noticing it brightens our day. Certainly, we get something when we give, but the warmth and joy we feel when doing for others is a far cry from the quid pro quo of most modern philanthropy of the wealthy.
In every community, there are countless illustrations of generosity to be savored. In the East Bay we have a sterling example, the Berkeley Free Clinic. Nearly all services at the Berkeley Free Clinic, which started in 1969, are provided by volunteers. Every year, nearly two hundred local residents spend their time providing care and education and doing the repetitive jobs required to keep the clinic running.
One of our reporters, Sam Levin, has written about all manner of local residents who give freely of their time to help others — and exhibit true generosity in the process. He recently wrote about Naima Shalhoub, an Oakland singer and public school employee who read about how women are the fastest growing segment of the US prison population and that the vast majority of women behind bars are mothers. Each week for one year, Shalhoub voluntarily provided music classes at the San Francisco County Jail, ultimately recording a live album there. You can listen to some of those moving songs on our website, (see “Naima Shalhoub: Finding a Voice Behind Bars,” 11/25). Shalhoub’s generosity gladdened the lives of many women — and her own. And in 2014, Levin wrote of Feral Change, an Oakland group concerned about stray colonies of cats throughout the East Bay. Traipsing around our community, Feral Change traps, neuters, and releases stray cats, which the group and others believe is the only humane and effective way to manage these animals in an urban environment (see “The Oakland Cat Trappers,” 1/29/14).
It is often forgotten that generosity flows through struggles for social change. Service to others motivates those who risk jail to confront racist police and undemocratic political structures and workers who fight to maintain an adequate standard of living for their families and their co-workers — like BART workers and nurses and other hospital workers in the Bay Area.
It’s good to remember the British social policy scholar, Richard Titmuss, who wrote about the “gift relationship” in which generosity focuses us on the needs of the “universal stranger.” Titmuss studied societal systems for collection of human blood. His work argues that the donation of a part of one’s body is a demonstration of human solidarity, emphasizing our shared physical frailties. He found that superior results were achieved when blood is collected by donation — not financial compensation. Ignoring the human impulse toward altruism, Titmuss believed, imperils the cornerstones of collective welfare and a just and caring society.
Life is busy and stressful, but a practice and recognition of generosity in our personal lives and in society can be constantly carried with us. And like with true love, true generosity is not for sale to the highest bidder.