Pillars of Joy: Day 8 (Generosity)

“The Dead Sea in the Middle East receives fresh water, but it has no outlet, so it doesn’t pass the water out. It receives beautiful water from the rivers, and the water goes dank….And that’s why it is the Dead Sea. It receives and does not give.”

This is the last of 8 posts exploring the 8 Pillars of Joy as outlined in Douglas Abrams’s The Book of Joy, featuring the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In many ways, the eighth and final Pillar of Joy is a culmination of all the others. If you can’t remember the entire list, which you probably won’t unless you deliberately commit it to memory, at least remember this one. Generosity combines each of the other pillars into one of the most fundamental virtues that joyous people have. You cannot be truly generous unless you recognize and appreciate other perspectives, learn to accept and forgive other people, and have compassion for even your enemies. This is because generosity requires joy, which is a product of these other traits.

We are all familiar with the mantra that it is better to give than to receive, but according to Abrams, there is actually some evidence that this is more than just a handy proverb for parents to repeat around Christmas. He explains that “Generosity is so important in all of the world’s religions because it no doubt expresses a fundamental aspect of our interdependence and our need for one another. Generosity was so important for our survival that the reward centers of our brain light up as strongly when we give as when we receive, sometimes even more so.” This raises a question that also came up in the discussion of compassion, are we really wired for some kind of non-competitive behavior?

The Archbishop definitely thinks we are: “We have been brought up to think that we have to obey the laws of the jungle. Eat or be eaten. We are ruthless in our competitiveness….We have downplayed the fact that actually our created nature is that we are made for a complementarity. We have become dehumanized and debased.” There is a strong consensus that as our world has grown increasingly interconnected by technology and trade, we have grown proportionally disconnected and isolated. Materialism and commercialism have certainly infiltrated our lives in ways that we can no longer even recognize, and the definition of “success” continues to change so that our grasping fingers are always just short of reaching it.

I know this is not exactly an original idea, but it is important to be reminded of it from time to time. No matter how much we enjoy giving, we seem to return to our obsession with getting. Like an alcoholic or a serial dieter, we know what will make us happy and healthy, but we are always tempted by the siren call of behaviors that leave us temporarily gratified and inevitably unsatisfied. What a beautiful irony that the cure for selfishness is generosity. The best way to get more is to give more.

Abrams says that generosity is “something we learn to enjoy by doing.” From my own experience, I know this is true. I really enjoy helping other people, and I am lucky that my life has afforded me many opportunities to do it. Sadly, I don’t have the financial freedom to give much in the way of monetary help, but I have always liked being able to give time and energy to people whenever possible. Perhaps there is something selfish about this arrangement, but that could be part of the whole design. If it didn’t feel good to help others, we might not do it at all.

I thought about dissecting my 8-day (well, 2-week) experiment to see what kind of impact it had on me, but I decided against it. Why? Towards the end of the book, Abrams discusses the incredible trait that the Dalai Lama and the Archbishop share. He says, “the quality they both have, perhaps more than any other, is this generosity of the spirit. They are big-hearted, magnanimous, tolerant, broad-minded, patient, forgiving, and kind.” Joy isn’t a product formed by the perfect execution of a recipe. It’s not a skill that can be learned by practicing various techniques. It’s the result of being a certain kind of person or living a certain kind of life. You don’t find joy by looking for it. You create joy by living a life that is conducive to being joyful.


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