I’ve been trying to frame a post around generosity for several months. Interestingly and unexpectedly, the idea of generosity has remained a Gordian knot in spite of word webs, notes and lengthy simmering in the back of my mind. Since I began chewing on the idea of generosity, I’ve discovered Unsplash, a site offering free use of photographs for things like this blog, and now I finally feel I’m getting a grip on the subject.
Unsplash features more than 300,000 photos from more than 50,000 contributors. It’s free to use and free to join. Users may upload photographs for whatever they want as frequently as they want.
If generosity is unconditional readiness or liberality in giving, Unsplash is surely a fine illustration of the concept. The Internet is filled with people practising their art. Some are trying to make a living. Many, like me, provide free content. Others start out contributing freely and then uplevel in order to earn a little bit of money with advertising, an Amazon affiliate program, a subscription fee, etc. In my view, some of the content out there is worth paying for, and other content is not.
Unsplash is worth paying for. Many of the photographers who contribute are professionals with content to sell, yet they continue to share some of their work freely with others.
Up to this point, I haven’t made a dime on this blog. It wasn’t about the money, but exercising my voice, my writing skills and my courage. I had no idea where it would go or what would happen with it. I had no idea if anyone would read what I wanted to write or how much I would grow to value the weekly practice of posting and maintaining a blog. I do want, however, to publish and sell my books in the future.
I think part of my struggle to get my head around generosity has been my own damaged sense of value. Those of us who feel we’re worthless assume we’ve nothing to give. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve declined attending a pot luck, a fundraiser, a party or even a funeral. I tell myself I have nothing to contribute, I was invited out of obligation or kindness, and nobody will even notice my absence.
I am not Cinderella, and I do not possess a fairy godmother who will make me socially acceptable or worthy.
I wonder, looking back, if others have experienced me as being ungenerous or mean because of my lack of social contribution, when what was really at work was introversion, social anxiety and an abysmal sense of self-worth. I have no way of knowing.
On the other hand, I’ve volunteered my whole life. I’ve spent years working with children as a librarian, tutor, child development clinician, teacher’s aide, swim teacher and parent. I’ve participated in fire and rescue work as a volunteer EMT, as well as with animal rescue organizations. I’ve volunteered in libraries and as an oral storyteller, and I’ve volunteered as a dancer. I’ve worked in hospitals, nursing homes, public schools and libraries.
See? Nothing to contribute.
I earned a paycheck for some of that work, but one doesn’t get rich doing the kind of jobs I love to do, and the paycheck was never my motivation. I just loved the work. I felt as though I was making a difference in every one of those roles.
I’ve always limited the idea of generosity to financial resource. Part of my shame about my poverty is that I’m unable to be financially generous, which I’ve believed automatically makes me stingy and uncharitable. If my generosity is measured by what I spend, it’s so small as to be negligible. I’m a rotten capitalist consumer.
In thinking deeply about generosity, I can see how my beliefs have distorted my view. I wrote some time ago about the failure of money, and that peeled away some of my limiting beliefs, but only the first layer or two. If I make generosity about money, I can never be generous, and I block the financial generosity of others toward me because I can’t reciprocate in kind. My desire to give is greater than my desire to receive. I desperately want to make a contribution. I feel disempowered when I can’t reciprocate someone’s generosity in a way that feels equal, and then I disconnect.
Unhooking generosity from money changes the way I look at it. Developing some trust in my own value also changes the way I think about generosity. Now I wonder if money is perhaps the least reliable indicator of generosity, not the most. Money is very visible and obvious in the world, but that doesn’t make it the most useful contribution. There have been times in my life when I’ve been in desperate need of money, but many, many more times when I’ve been in significantly more desperate need of someone to hold me, someone to believe in me, encourage me and simply love me. Money is easier to come by, believe me, than love and acceptance. Writing a check, donating a few dollars to the organization of our choice or buying a gift is easier, for many of us, than effectively communicating our love and appreciation for those around us in words or actions.
Some people give only to receive. On the face of it, it looks like generosity, but it’s not. My understanding of true generosity is that it has no hidden agenda. Conditional generosity is like conditional love; control and manipulation pretending to be something else. Behavior that seeks power over others, or is freighted with unacknowledged expectations, is the reverse of generosity.
Another way in which people use generosity to mask control is to force a “gift” onto another. In this case, someone informs us about what we need and we understand we’d better damn well accept it and be grateful. Refusal is out of the question because of an unequal power dynamic. Acceptance of the “gift” also perpetuates an unequal power dynamic, because we’re expected to demonstrate appropriate gratitude (as defined by the gift giver) for something we didn’t want or need in the first place. We’re not allowed to express or receive what we really need, only submit to what someone else needs to give in order to get something for themselves.
A good litmus test for discerning authentic generosity is whether it occurs in anonymity. People giving to receive will never do it quietly. There’s always a camera, a video, a witness or a headline. There’s always a score card, a quid pro quo. There’s always a distorted power dynamic. Such people give to reward and withhold to punish.
You want to star in my production? Meet me on the casting couch and maybe I’ll put in a word for you.
At the end of all this excavation, I’ve finally begun to make friends with generosity. I am capable of being truly generous, and I have generous people in my life. I can discern the difference now between the real thing and a ploy to maintain or grab power. I may not have money, but I can appreciate, marvel and share. I can say thank you. I can give anonymously. I can exercise a generous compassion towards myself and others for our weaknesses and mistakes. I can recognize my desire for reciprocity and power-with as important pieces of my own integrity and freely disconnect from people and situations that don’t support what I need.
This takes me back to Unsplash. I know in this day and age it’s hard to think past the money, but as a creative person on line with free content I can assure you that no amount of money outweighs the gratification of knowing I’ve made a connection, that something I write resonates with someone else. Money is important, and I wish I had more of it. If I can uplevel the blog in small ways to earn a little bit of money, I’ll do it. The real reward, though, is when someone reaches out to me and says, “Yes! Me, too! Your words made a difference in my day.” It just doesn’t get better than that.
Because of that, I’ve developed a habit of contacting a couple of photographers every week whose work appears in this blog. Behind each photograph is someone living a life, struggling with the things we all struggle with, sharing their unique vision and eye with the world just because. Unconditionally. I go to their website, if they have one. I explore their pictures and read about who they are. I contact them and briefly introduce myself. I thank them for their collaboration with me, a collaboration that’s invisible to them unless I reach out. I express my appreciation for their contribution. It doesn’t take very long. It’s not as fast as writing a check or reciting a credit card number, but it’s a lot more fun.
So far, every single one has responded to say thank you. Thank you for acknowledging my unique creativity. Thank you for taking the time to remember the person behind the camera. Thank you for collaborating with me so we enhance one another’s contribution.
There is no exchange of money in this generosity, only of humanity. They give freely. I accept the gift and add it to my own, paying it both forward and backward.
Generosity: Unconditional readiness or liberality in giving. A daily crime worth committing.
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