Gift Rapt

Zell Kravinsky is an investment broker who for years has been giving away his money—$45 million at last count. He made news five years ago by donating a kidney to a woman he had not known. That was also the moment the Kravinsky family began saying that his altruism bordered on the obsessive.

A New York Times reporter wrote that talking to him was "unsettling"—especially when Kravinsky said that he'd gladly give his other kidney to a person whose life seemed more valuable than Kravinsky's own. His wife worried that he was depriving their children. Friends confessed that his gesture made them feel guilty. "I don't think I'm a bad person," Kravinsky's longtime friend Barry Katz told the reporter. "I give money to charity and I think I'm fairly generous, but when I look at what he's done, I can't help but notice a little voice in the back of my head saying, 'What have you done lately? Why haven't you saved someone's life?'"

Whether you think Kravinsky's generosity is saintly or neurotic, it is hard to read about him without asking yourself the same sorts of questions: What am I really giving in this life? How much could or should I give? Where am I truly generous, and where do I hold back? And when is generosity out of balance?

These questions show up with special intensity when we read about a collective crisis like the Japanese tsunami damage, or the tornados in the south, or, for me, whenever I drive past the crop pickers' camps that line the back roads in nearby Salinas, California and see the horrific conditions in which most migrant workers live. That's when we want to give everything we have to try to make things better; and often, when the generous instinct wars with the other part of ourselves, that part worries about our own safety and survival.

Generosity is one of the ten paramitas, or enlightened qualities that Buddhists try to cultivate; it's a core virtue extolled in every spiritual and religious tradition. It may also be the one virtue that most of us believe we possess. Macy's recent Christmas tag line "Everyone has a gift to give!" was not only a brilliant marketing ploy, but also a reflection of our need to believe that in a pinch we'd choose to offer rather than grasp.

In one sense, generosity is natural: We can no more help giving than we can live without the support of everything we receive. Verses in the Vedas describe the generosity of the natural elements, the way the earth supports us without us demanding thanks, the way the sun shines and the rain falls. The universe is, in fact, a web of giving and receiving; to grasp the truth of this, we need only to remember the eighth-grade science trip to the pond, or to think about the life of a city, with its symbiotic, mutually dependent networks of relationships.

But if our essence is naturally generous, the ego fears not having enough, worries about getting hurt or losing out, feels anxious at the thought of looking silly or getting ripped off, and above all, looks for a payoff. So for most of us, there's a continual push-pull between our natural generosity and genuine desire to share and the ego's feeling of lack and its desire to drive a bargain.

That's why practicing generosity is such a boundary-expanding thing to do. Every time we make a generous offering, whether in acts, words, or even thoughts, especially when we can do it for its own sake without thought of reward, we strengthen our essence. In that way, generosity truly is an enlightening activity. It opens us to the loving, abundant, good-natured core of ourselves and, at least for the moment, loosens the ego's grip.

Gifts of the Heart
Problems may arise, however, when pride, regret, or self-doubt surfaces and infects the pure impulse of offering, because, of course, generosity is susceptible to the ego's genius for distortion. You might know people whose generosity is a pure power ploy, designed to buy loyalty or social advancement, reward favors, or cover shady business practices. Often what looks like generosity is a form of bribery or braggadocio. We may be generous in one area because we can't or won't be generous in another—the classic example being the busy parent who buys endless toys for a child she can't or doesn't want to spend time with.

On the other end of the spectrum, we might be compulsively open-handed with our time or money, giving because we feel guilty or because in some way we devalue ourselves and our gifts. These are all varieties of unbalanced generosity. As are gifts that are given in a way that subtly diminishes the recipient, or gestures that squander our resources without actually being of help.

Moreover, for many of us, there's the problem of malaise, the automatized, dulled feeling that sets in when our giving becomes a matter of routine. As a friend said, "The first time you write a check to Doctors Without Borders, your heart swells with happiness at being able to help. But when you get solicited for more money every week, the act either turns into a rote reflex or a source of guilt as you throw the letter in the trash. What happens to your generosity then?"