The Healing Power of Generosity
Why helping each other can bring us back together
Posted Oct 14, 2018
Last week, while passing through the Phoenix airport, I was reminded of a story that feels especially timely.
Four years ago, in that same airport, my flight from Denver had just arrived after several hours of delays. With just a few minutes to grab lunch before heading to a client meeting, I snagged a salad and searched for a place to quickly eat it.
A few gates away, there was a small seating area attached to a fast food restaurant. Except for a man in a suit a few tables away, it was empty. I figured no one would mind if I sat down for five minutes.
I was wrong.
Instantly, an angry restaurant employee marched up to my table. She told me that if I hadn’t bought anything, I needed to leave. Directly behind her was a sign that read, “Welcome to Phoenix: The friendliest airport in America.”
“Are you serious?” I asked. She nodded. Feeling my face getting red, I gestured at all the empty tables and sarcastically replied, “Oh right. Because you’ve got SO MANY PATRONS waiting to sit down.” I told her I wasn’t leaving. (This was obviously not one of my finer moments).
“Well,” she said, “Then I’m going to have to get my manager.”
As I braced myself for whatever was about to happen next, someone plopped a bottle of water on my table. I looked up to find the man in a suit handing me a receipt. “You just bought a bottle of water. Now they can’t kick you out. Enjoy your lunch.” Before I could even thank him, he was gone.
I sat there in disbelief, processing what had just happened. He had most likely had a long, frustrating day on the road. Yet when the opportunity to help was presented, he didn’t ignore it or walk away (both of which would have been easy to do). Instead, he chose to help. Suit Man was a rare breed.
Though human beings are literally wired for generosity, we can also be surprisingly stingy. It’s a tough world—and the demands placed upon us (and those we place on ourselves) can give us tunnel vision. Truthfully, given how stressed I was at the time, I wasn’t sure I would have done the same for Suit Man if our roles were reversed.
When was the last time you chose not to help someone who needed it? Perhaps a coworker asked for your assistance, but you already had too much on your plate. Or you declined a coffee invitation from an early career colleague looking to pick your brain. Or you didn’t donate when asked to support a friend’s cherished cause.
We often find ways to justify our benign neglect: we’re tired, or in a bad mood, or we decide that they don’t really need our help. But this is a dangerous cycle, especially in our current climate. As our ideological fault lines have deepened, we are becoming more insulated. And the more insulated we are, the harder it becomes to see others—especially those who aren’t on “our team”—with humanity and compassion.
This is why I was so grateful to be reminded of Suit Man last week. His act of generosity didn’t just make my day better—he inspired me to make a commitment that I have carried with me ever since: to perform one generous act, big or small, every day.
And by deciding to proactively help the people around us, we can start to find our way back to each other. As psychology professor Dr. Barbara Fredrickson aptly points out, when we create “chains of events that carry positive meaning for others, it…trigger[s] upward spirals that transform communities.”
So here’s my challenge this month: don’t just give occasionally, or when it’s easy, or when you’re in a good mood. Give more than you have to, more often than you have to. The world needs our generosity more than ever.