Misinterpreting generosity

Who wants to get uncomfortable? Me too!

On Monday I had a chance to have lunch with a friend. While I was waiting for him to arrive, I noticed a group of ladies lunching at the table next to me. I, too, am dismayed by my use of ‘lunch’ as a verb. Just as I looked over towards the table, the 3rd member of their lunch party had arrived. She was carrying two small gift bags. She handed them to the ladies, and the ladies tore into them like 8 year olds on Christmas morning. They were candles. First off, as a guy, if you ever buy me a candle, I will promptly throw it at you and call you a derogatory name. But this isn’t about gender. This is about the comment that followed the exchange of gifts.

“Margaret, you’re always so generous!” said one of the ladies.


Margaret may be thoughtful, but that doesn’t make her generous. Upper-middle class ladies giving each other gifts during a $50 lunch doesn’t make them generous. Generous is when you are giving something to someone that needs something. Giving modest, or even extravagant, gifts to your friends is often misconstrued as generous. I know that it seems like I’m splitting hairs here, but I’m not.

When gifts exchanged amongst family members and friends are misconstrued for generosity, something REALLY bad happens. People who really need others’ generosity, miss out. And it’s especially bad if the giver deems their give to be generous. I believe that most people innately want to help others. This “want” is satisfied when you feel that you have helped others. When you do something generous, or what you perceive to be generous, then this desire is satisfied. An extravagant gift to your friend for her baby shower isn’t generous. It’s thoughtful. The diamond earrings that you give to your wife, girlfriend, and/or mistress isn’t generous. It’s thoughtful. Yet, if we perceive these gifts to be generous, then everyone loses.

This is a HUGE problem around the holidays. Several American families are about to exercise their generosity…in the wrong way. The exchange of gifts amongst the fortunate steals the satisfying act that comes with truly being generous. This makes me very sad.

Yes, I realize that people are allowed to give gifts to each other. Yes, I realize that there is nothing wrong with that. But when you have sifted through the thousands of household budgets that I have, and when you have seen that “gifts” account for a major amount of spending, while “charity” does not, you would feel as jaded as I do. We MUST listen to our instincts. Our instincts are telling us that generosity is very important. But something different is telling us to share that generosity amongst your friends, who happen to be in the exact same socio-economic situation as you.

Gift away. Give. Give. Give. Just realize that you aren’t helping ANYONE by giving your loved one a gift. Harsh? Absolutely. But, I’m in the same boat as you. If I give my daughter a motorized child’s size Barbie Cadillac Escalade (which there is no way in hell I would ever do), then I’m not being generous.

When you truly are generous, you will feel the difference. You will want to repeat the process over and over and over.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know.

13 thoughts on “Misinterpreting generosity

  1. Let’s take it a step further. I love Christmas gifts that are truly thoughtful. It doesn’t have to be an expensive object, but one you know truly appeals to the receiver for some reason. Gifts that are given ‘because its Christmas and I have to give something’ and that really aren’t thoughtful but just a ‘thing’ are a WASTE of money and the time put into getting them and wrapping them. I wish I could make certain members of my family understand this. Because this is their Christmas tradtion – to buy each person several things to open (that they neither want nor need (and in my case have actually just thrown away in some cases)), I ‘have’ to participate in their thoughtless Christmas tradition. Maybe I’ll have the guts to put a stop to it next year. Like I said, I’m all for a truly thoughtful gift at any time of year when you see something really special, but lets put a stop to just giving some crappy thing because ‘you have to’.

  2. I agree with you, but I just don’t see charity as the “be all, end all” for generosity (not that you said that outright or anything). I think that in this country and in our society one of the best ways to be generous is to work hard and make a ton of money while never forgetting where you’ve come from or who you are. While you’re doing that, hire people, train them, and provide them a way to make a living for themselves. Enable them to make money to provide for their families, to send their kids to college, and care for their loved ones in times of need. Spend that money by making investments, paying bills, and buying things; all of which generate income for other people. After all, you can give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he’ll eat for a lifetime. Again, that’s not to say that charitable giving should go away, but it’s merely a component to generosity.

  3. Agree. My family stopped the mindless gift giving some years back. Now if we want to give something to each other we give it immediately (rather than in Christmas) since it is usually based on a need (and if you need it now why am I going to wait 4 months to give it to you?!) and now we give anonymous monetary donations to family who are in need or going to through a rough financial patch. It works for us.

  4. Hey Pete – Interesting rant 🙂 and I see your point. Several years ago, some family and some friends and I agreed that our “gifts” to each other would be donations to some charitable organization. It feels good, doesn’t add clutter, and isn’t going to be re-gifted except to the recipients of assistance from the charity. It’s usually the right size and there’s no need to mess with returns. Happy trails, and thanks for your insights.

  5. Good blog Pete. Now if we can get our friends and family on board. I hate this time of year. All you hear is I want want want. When asked what I want for Christmas, which I don’t celebrate, I say nothing. If I NEED something, I buy it (like the Late Bloomer). Then they buy me something I don’t want or need. Yes, they were thoughtful, but not generous. One year we adopted a family and bought the items they thought they needed. I felt good, but I was the lone ranger, so the family went back to gift giving. I have not bought anyone anything they didn’t need (except baby), and don’t plan on it. Some local organizations will be happy though.

    Happy Holidays

  6. Since my son was a Marine and volunteered for the Toys for Tots program, I have purchased a pile of toys for donation, and my adult children each get a picture of the toys that were donated in their honor. I quash my desire to purchase the cutesy baby and little girl toys and purchase things suitable for boys older than 8 years old, as they are the most forgotten when it comes to donations. Both of my adult children live in different states, and exchanging gift cards just seemed a little silly. While none of us are well off, we have all of the essentials necessary to have enjoy an adequate lifestyle. It makes us all feel good to know we made the Holidays a little better for a few boys.

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