I’ve been reading a lot about generosity in preparation for leading a retreat on that subject this weekend. The books have ranged from informative (The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose) to challenging (The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty) to inspiring (More or Less: Choosing a Life Style of Excessive Generosity). Each of them has invited me to re-evaluate the way we live. And the way we give.
Christian Smith and Hillary Davidson, researchers at Notre Dame, identify various types of generosity: Giving money, volunteering, neighborly generosity (watching someone’s house when they’re away, etc) and relational generosity (being generous within one’s extended family). They found that generous Americans experienced more health, happiness, purpose in life and sense of well-being. Despite this, they also found a surprisingly high percentage of ungenerous Americans who live in fear of not having enough for themselves down the road.
Peter Singer’s provocative book, The Life You Can Save, presents compelling arguments for doing more to address world poverty. He also explores and debunks some of the reasons people don’t give, including feeling that the problems are so huge that my little bit won’t make a difference. While he doesn’t set out to send us on a guilt trip, it’s hard not to feel guilty when our restaurant spending over the course of a year could easily save the lives of several children.
In his book, More or Less, Jeff Shinabarger suggests that the most important question facing this generation is “What is enough?” He contends that holding onto more than we need results in a loss of freedom and isolation from our communities. He goes on to say that the people closest to us play a large role in determining what we desire. When we separate ourselves from people in need, it’s hard to be generous. When we spend time with people in need, we begin to desire to meet those needs. (I’ve assembled some thoughts about generosity from these and other authors and thinkers here.)
So where does all of that leave Bill and me at this stage of our lives? We have been exploring the question of what’s enough space. Living in one room in a community has been fine. At some point we’ll move into an apartment where it will be easier to offer hospitality, one of the things we most enjoy. We will probably never live in a large house again, unless it’s in community. A two bedroom apartment feels like enough. Owning a car in our current circumstances may be an excess.
A tougher question: As our ability to earn more diminishes, how much money is enough? And which of the many needs — ranging from our kids’ student loans to the life and death needs of children around the world — are we called to address?
How are you deciding how much is enough? Where would you like to contribute more?