I was having a conversation with a friend of mine earlier today, and we touched on the subject of generosity.
She felt she was generous because she gave to the Red Shield Appeal and gave all her second-hand stuff to St Vincents to be sold cheaply - helping someone who needed cheap goods and raising money to help others. She also felt she was generous because she tipped poorly-paid wage-earners such as the girl who served us our lunch today, and because she bought my lunch and was randomly prepared to do things like that for various people at different times.
My experience of her is that she is a generous person - she is generous to me and to others around me, I see her generosity. She also knows what I was doing in the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was much more affluent than I am today, and I felt a little bit - ambivalent - before I changed the subject after she said: "Perhaps one day you'll be earning enough again to be able to be generous".
And in a sense, she is right. My income is only just adequate to support me, and has no room for largess to others. But does that make me mean? Her comment took me aback, because I feel like a generous person, no matter what my material circumstances.
I give people my time. I give people my laughter. I'll give people a hand with anything I can do for them. I give people my considered opinion. I share whatever resources I have. I'm always happy to help a stranger out, remembering times when people have helped me out, and thinking that perhaps they will one day help someone else out. I don't count favours: those I ask for, or those I do for others. I'll help the old lady down the road, whom I know is in constant pain althugh she never, ever complains. I'll routinely let someone with only a few items line up in front of me at a supermarket checkout.
And most importantly of all, I smile. I smile all the time, to everyone. As I walk down the road (and I walk everywhere), I smile at everyone. The way I look at it, every morning that I wake up still breathing has got to be a good day. Why not smile? It brightens someone else's day, if only for a moment. And it gives your own spirits a lift.
If I had a large income again, I'd probably do what I used to do, which was to have around 12% of it automatically deducted and forwarded to the charity of my choice. These days there are two: in NSW I give all my spare change to the Guide Dog Association, and in Western Australia to the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
But when I had the kind of income that allowed me to give $50 per payday to charity without even noticing it, I wasn't anywhere near as happy or as fulfilled as I am now, living on scraps. And I didn't see any happiness or joy coming from my acts of giving, so if I were able to give like that again I would. But I'd still keep on giving way at checkouts, helping the old lady down the road, doing favours for strangers, sharing my food, sharing my laughter, sharing my opinion, sharing my emotional support, and most of all, smiling.
Financial generosity helps with the mechanisms of life, but it is a strictly short-term help. Emotional generosity, generosity from the heart, doesn't pay the bills but it can touch someone and leave them changed potentially for a lifetime.