A TAKE ON ‘GENEROSITY’

“Generosity begins in welcome: a hospitality that offers whatever the host has that would meet the need of a guest. The welcome of opening the doors of one’s home signifies the opening of the self to others, including guests who may disrupt and demand. To guests who suffer, the host’s welcome is an initial promise of consolation. If the cosmic creation of life is the founding act of generosity, the human gift of consolation has at least one analogous quality: no reciprocity is required, for indeed none may be possible.

“When the giving of consolation is taken to be the paradigm of generosity, our imagination of what might be a generous relationship moves beyond material gifts and the economy of exchange that material gifts instigate. Generosity transcends any expectation of what the gift may bring back in reciprocity. Generosity implies the host’s trust in the renewable capacity to give; the generous person feels no need to measure what is given against what is received. Generosity does not plan for the giver’s own future. It responds to the guest’s need.

“Yet because what is offered can never meet the guest’s need completely, the welcome that generosity offers contains a plea for forgiveness. The biblical story of Job’s three friends, who arrive to console him and stay to accuse him, reminds us that consolation will always go wrong to some degree, and generosity always falls short.

“Generosity accepts our ultimate human failure to be generous. What counts is continuing to reopen the door of hospitality, welcoming the guest who needs consolation.” (1)

(1) Arthur W. Frank The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine, and How to Live Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2004 (In the context of the book, Frank advocates a generosity of spirit both to the givers and receivers of care, in systems that tend to be technocratic and subject to resource constraints.)