Invisible Generosity

Or, the gift of attention.

Posted Jul 12, 2019

I have the most generous friend, but she really does seem to know it. On the other hand, she seems to be always so grateful for the things that happen in her life whether they are good or not. She always finds a reason to be grateful for it.

So, I wonder: is there a connection between gratitude and generosity? Being able to acknowledge what good happens in your life, is it a form of generosity?

In one of our last conversations, I started raising questions about her way of feeling gratitude. To my eyes, it seems as though her way of interpreting generosity from others and then feeling grateful for it was, again, a little too generous.

It seemed to me that her what she was grateful for and considered generous was, in fact, somewhat selfish. It seems that the people around her have acted generously only because it didn’t cost them anything; while for her, paying back that generosity was actually expensive in terms of the physical and economic effort it took, but nonetheless expected. So:

What is generosity?

When can we say that a person is truly generous? Common sense would say that if someone has $100 and gives $5, they would not be as generous as someone who has $10 and gives $5. Yet, the one who possesses more is on average considered more generous than the other because they can afford more often and to a wider extent to be generous. Moreover, if this same person who has $100 gives $5 and expects to receive the same $5 or even $7 in return, would this person still be considered generous given their expectations?

All this math might be out of place here, but even if the question seems rhetorical in leading to the answer “hell no!”, that’s how generosity is often perceived. The more money you give away, the more generous you are.

Theoretically, the good voice inside of us knows that generosity implies a self-giving act in which the other spends as much as they can without expecting anything in return, not even an embarrassed thank you. Yet, practically speaking, generosity is in reality praised because of the material, financial, and visible means with which it is expressed.

The root of the word

In fact, the etymology of the word generosity seems to give reason to the practical way in which we associate generosity with money.

Originally, the word generosity comes from ‘genus,’ the birth. If you are of noble birth, then you are generous by default because whatever you do will show that you come from a wealthy family, as it has the genus, the mark of your house--no effort involved.

Attention as one act of generosity

With time we started associating generosity with moral values, too. A wealthy family is truly noble if it also spouses good moral values.

This kind of invisible generosity connected to good choices and moral principles seems much nobler than the acts that are visible.

In that sense, attention can be a great example of generosity. In our current “Information Age’ in which, James Chricton Browne said, we have to process in a month more information than what was required of our grandfathers in the course of a lifetime, having time for attention is a great act of generosity.

We are often overwhelmed and there’s no actual time for attention. The tendency to react with pre-packaged answers to the events and exchanges with others has become more and more diffused.

A friend is broken-hearted—the pre-packaged answer of care to it would be "it’s going to be fine"; you missed an appointment, "apologize and reschedule"; you have to pass that exam, "study hard." Instead of attending life we often react to it and move on until there’s nothing left to attend to.

Simone Weil, a philosopher and a very generous human being, said that attention is the purest and rarest form of generosity. Often it is confused with Will as if we can have any control over our attention.  According to this philosopher, attention is instead the time that you give yourself and others to relax your muscles and let a desire grow. Attention is the tension that you let expand inside yourself to tend to the things that matter most in your life.

In that sense, Weil’s biography was the exemplification of generosity. To cite one of the many examples, she decided to end her career as a teacher and dedicate herself to one of the most consuming jobs in a factory. Her desire was to understand how the condition of workers and the quality of their life really was, and then write about it.

Attention. Invisible generosity. Taking enough time to taste the pleasure of what you’re doing without giving in to the pressure of checking a box and feeding your ego’s will--this can be a remarkably generous act to yourself and others.

Unfortunately, there is no acknowledgment to that. No nurse would see his name on a plaque in the hospital’s halls for having heard the same story told over and over again from a patient affected by dementia. No walk of fame would be dedicated to social workers, psychotherapists, cleaners and so on.  The invisible generosity remains invisible and often not acknowledged. 

It seems that for invisible generosity there is no need to show actual gratitude. Everything around that core remains blissfully invisible. All the same, these people are those from whom gratitude is expected.

In any case,

I do believe that one can be generous, even if there are no financial or emotional visible means involved. The effort one makes to feel and share the pleasure of what you’re doing will be the mark of your generosity.

Material means and expectations are just a palliative side to generosity. I still believe that the attention and the emotional care my friend puts in all that she does in the world makes her the most generous person. I would like to bring my gratitude to her out of the space of invisibility.