Generosity as Gift of Self: Short Reflection Written Before Hurricane Ivan Made Landfall

I recently took the Carrollton streetcar to grab a bite to eat at a restaurant on St. Charles Avenue the night before hurricane Ivan skirted Louisiana. In New Orleans, everything is usually open, all the time, so it was unusual to see places boarded up and the streets bereft of people. The place I found was the only place open, besides bars, so I got a seat for one and sat down with a book. No sooner had I sat down, when a woman’s voice above me asked, “What book are you reading?” For a brief second, I was surprised at being interrupted, but I looked up and told her; she asked me if I would not mind eating with her and her boyfriend. For a second I hesitated, but then said, “sure” and joined the couple. It was a delightful supper, replete with redfish, red wine, and delectable conversation.
We talked about philosophy, Macs, and internet dating. At the end of the meal, with cash in my hand to pay for the plate -- Daniel insisted that he pay. Sarah rejoined the insistence by saying he was rich, “he’s a civil engineer”. “Oh,” I said and let them pay. I told them they were very generous. “Extremely generous,” I said and exchanged e-mails. They drove off into the empty night, whilst I took the streetcar back to Walmsley and Carrollton.

I could not shake from my mind the whole problem of generosity. I had to ask myself, What is generosity? What human acts embody generosity? Is generosity even possible? Is this act we call generosity genuinely altruistic in of itself? To begin to unravel these questions, to uncover the origins of generosity it is necessary to disassociate ourselves from the common conception of giving. It is taken for granted that a gift is a gift is a gift. It seems self-evident. Altruism is assumed without debate, despite any ulterior motives tugging away at our sleeves. Doubt creeps in when something happens, a seeming generosity, that questions the validity of gift as authentically as a gift of self. To begin to uncover some kind of insight into these questions, and to set parameters for the scope of this essay, three perspectives are considered: etymological considerations, biblical associations, and a post-modern reading, especially in light of Derrida’s contribution to literary theory.
Etymological Considerations
Is the payment of someone else’s meal signature of authentic giving and magnanimity? Was it munificent or noble, a stamp of an excellent race? The latter italicized words are just some of the descriptors the Oxford English Dictionary uses to define generosity. There are three main definitions of the word in this dictionary. The first is archaic and means “excellence, goodness of race”.

The second is a little more difficult to grasp because it has an original meaning (now obsolete) that has been nuanced. It means “High Spirit, courage, nobility of conduct (obsolete). This definition is now only used in the most restricted sense: ‘willingness to lay aside resentment or forgive injuries; magnanimity’”.

The third entry for generosity is probably the most used in common English parlance and the easiest of the definitions to grasp. It simply means to readily give, to be munificent.

The etymology of generosity is from the Latin word Generositas, (-em), which comes from the word generos, (-us) which comes from the word genus, generis which comes from the which means race or species.
Biblical Considerations
Is generosity merely the giving of money to people outside of your family, as was displayed in my case the other night?

Or is it something deeper than this, is there another step? Is it the giving of bread and fish to a crowd of people? Is it the breaking of the bread and filling of the baskets? When Jesus fed the multitudes in Matthew’s Gospel the text indicates that they were all satisfied and there were leftovers: “Everyone ate all they wanted, and the leftovers filled seven large baskets.”

No one left hungry; people even had enough to bring home to their families and friends. Jesus was moved to pity when he saw that they had nothing to eat.

So he fed them to satisfy their nothingness, it seems, out of nothing against his friends’ better judgment.

The apostles and disciples saw the impossibility of feeding such a crowd with only a scant amount of food. Their concept of giving was giving what you have. Jesus saw giving as giving what you do not seem to have. The disciples seem to question the gift of self as a gift from nothing.

But were they right? All four Gospels give an account of Jesus feeding a multitude of people.

Matthew counts five thousand people fed in chapter fourteen and four thousand in chapter fifteen, Mark counts five thousand. Luke counts five thousand and so does John, not counting women and children. The numbers are meant as hyperbole, that the crowd was huge, not to be interpreted as census data. The crowd was plausibly too much to feed. The apostles were not wrong in questioning Jesus on this matter. They had every right to question Jesus’ ludicrous claim to feed such a crowd with almost nothing. Or is it something, after all?

Mark gives a clue to Jesus’ reasons to break the bread for so many people. Mark writes that Jesus saw the vast crowd and was moved with pity for they were sheep without a shepherd.

So, Jesus feeds them with teaching first. Then Mark gives two images of the nonphenemenon, the desert, and the command to give what you don’t have. His disciples approach him and say, “This is a deserted place”.

Deserted means nothing lives there, and probably nothing flourishes if it stays, a place where sheep without a shepherd go. Jesus tells his disciples to give them food, most likely knowing that there is nothing to give. Luke gives a very similar story, except he does not mention sheep without a shepherd. In the Johannine account, it is actually Jesus who questions his friends. He mentions to Philip about the problem of feeding so many people to see what he will say, instead of the synoptic pattern of the disciples asking Jesus.

John’s story takes place in Galilee, an abundant place, green and far from deserted, especially compared to the rest of Palestine. It makes sense why Jesus would spend so much time there for it is verdant, not the pasty sands and yellow dirt of the surrounding area. John gives the detail of the people sitting on the grass, another image of abundance.

I imagine the scene as John illustrates it, a sea of people seated by the sea of Tiberias. There is also the detail that the “fragments from the barley loaves had been more than they could eat”.

In John’s account, there is a strange ending, that of Jesus leaving the crowd for fear they will carry him off to be king, so he goes to the mountain alone.

The generosity of Jesus does not come out of the fact that the people were fed or that there were leftovers, but that the gift came out of this remarkable deprivation of food, it even came out of the doubt of Jesus’ friends. Is the generosity of the multiplication of loaves and fishes in that Jesus seems to give out of nothing, or is it that he empathizes with those around him? Did Jesus even give out of nothing to begin with, for can you really give out of nothing? There seems to be a tension here, a tension that Derrida and others have pointed out.

John Paul II writes that the concept of giving cannot refer to nothingness for the giving “indicates the one who receives the gift and also the relationship that is established between them”.

Jacques Derrida saw the unique characteristic of gift as having no reciprocity. For him, the conditions of gift are “forgetfulness, nonappearance, nonphenomenonality, nonperception, nonkeeping”.

The gift no longer is gift in the recognition of the gift. The miracle of the multiplication of the loaves is that Christ fed the multitudes and they ate of it and were satisfied, picking up what was left over -- it seemed to come out of nothing, for it came out of a sense of nonreciprocity, not the economic sense of gift that we think of today, as a mere exchange of goods. The pope seems to see the gift played out in the relationship between the giver and the receiver, different from Derrida.

I am reminded of Christmas, a holiday that seems to have become a farce of the feeding of the multitudes for it is such a grandiose display of gross abundance that it has become a destruction of gift for it is in the “simple identification” of gift which negates the gift as gift. “The simple identification of the gift seems to destroy it.”

For example, one is expected to give a gift at Christmas. One would feel awkward if given a gift not reciprocated. Children expect gifts at Christmas. Even adults have the same expectation for the immediate response at a Christmas party on reception of gift is “Did I give her a gift in return?”. We feel indebted. We feel uncomfortable in the feeling that we may have forgotten someone. We feel like we owe some sort of economic restitution instead of forgetfulness. In the story of the loaves and fishes Jesus responded to his friends’ incredulity by providing for the needs of the crowds, then he went to pray, refusing to be crowned king right then and there. It seems Jesus seeks anonymity. It seems that unlike the consumer-driven entity Christmas has become, giving requires a relationship and a spirit of forgetfulness, and also a gospel sense to preach, to feed, and to pray.

The story Derrida gives in his article is of a Queen who laments that she has no time, for she gives all of it to the king, and what is left over she gives to whom she loves. The true gift is the gift of self out of nothingness, not the obligatory time she gives to the king. The true gift is the time (that which she has none of, interestingly enough) she gives to her beloved. Saint Augustine fills in the gaps in one line in his Civitate Dei, speaking of virtue. Virtue in its true, shortest description is that which is ordered toward love.

Virtue without Christian love is social work, as Aristotle spoke of virtue (arete) as habit in the Nichomachean Ethics, as disciplined repetition toward a telos, an end. What makes Christian virtue different than Aristotle? Pinckaers notes that “the acceptance of the Greek virtues following upon faith, brings with it something new”.

Augustine is not talking about philia, but about agape.

The something new Pinckaers brings to the picture is the introduction of the theological virtues to the tried and true arete. I would say that Augustine is talking of a love ordered toward God.

The gift we give out of love of God is the true gift for it is a gift of self not from a recognition of obligation and not reliant on solely classical virtue. I am reminded of the story of Lazarus and the rich man, for even if the rich man had fed Lazarus - if it was not out of love - it would have been in vain even so. It is fair to say that just because someone gives you something does not make it a gift, nor are they necessarily generous.

Saint Augustine in his forty-second sermon states that there are two sorts of kindness: “giving the good you have, forgiving the evil you suffer”.

Augustine makes the distinction between charity of the heart, forgiveness, to donation of goods, giving. Jesus said, “Forgive and you will be forgiven, give and it will be given to you.”

For Augustine, “Forgive and you will be forgiven refers to pardoning; give and it will be given to you refers to making donations.”

Forgiving people costs you nothing. Someone asks you to forgive them and you do it, you lose nothing. You return home more affluent in charity.

The other sort seems tough because it seems like you lose so much, “because what anyone gives, well you no longer have what you give”.

But Augustine admonishes his listeners that what is gained on earth is perishable and the gift of stuff is usually just a mercantile exchange, a little interest paid on a savings here and a kickback there, things that will not remain in the coming of the end.

In a sermon at the beginning of Lent Saint Augustine warns that being too proud of our generosity will “forfeit the goodness of being humble”.

Humility reminds us of God, for we are finite and God is infinite; we cannot comprehend the infinite nor can we match it in generosity. So our gift of self will never be like God no matter how hard we try to give. For God gives us everything that is good. The theologian Jean Daujat spells out this grace from God in part of his book, The Theology of Grace. God gives. God gives us existence. To think we can repay that goodness is ludicrous.

To attempt to pay back God, to reciprocate his grace on us would be to identify the gift and thus refuse to see God and people in a relationship. God gives us the greatest gift, the gift of existence, and in that existence, we are given the grace of authority over this earth, the grace of its resources, communion with one another, the grace of children, God’s love for us, his love expressed in the Incarnation.

The Catechism gives some beautiful illustrations of generosity in the image of gifts of the spirit. God has given us the gift of existence, stewardship over this earth, over our children and communion with one another -- topics that the Catechism goes into great detail, but because of limited space and time, I cannot go into this further. But, again, the pope has a great line in his book, Theology of the Body: “... for man appears in creation as the one who received the world as a gift and it can also be said that the world received man as gift.”

For me true gift, true generosity of self is not fully expressed without the grace of God, without which, giving loses meaning. Augustine warns us when he writes about people deceiving themselves into good works when in reality they “can purchase for themselves impunity” to continue doing the bad stuff and persist in their “moral rottenness”.

Giving alms is good and noble but if it is sans love, i.e., love of God, self, and neighbor, then it ceases to be generosity and becomes apart of economics. Authentic generosity is giving that is spontaneous, unaware of itself as giving. In the event of giving, I have no awareness of myself as giving gift. It is not calculated to achieve for me anything else besides the moment in which the gift is given. Generosity should not be freighted with anxiety. Derrida’s model of generosity is very appealing to me, even though he is not a theologian, because it respects the tension between the giver and the recipient and it seems to respect the event of the gift. I like to add the God-event, which I have done here with the help of Saint Augustine, the Gospels and a couple of contemporary theologians that true generosity is akin to the gift that God bestows upon us in his creation, freely creating us in his own image, because he loved us first.
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