01/05/2015 03:16 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Spirit and Roots of Generosity and Miserliness


Our culture and socio-political environment call for us to be jolly and generous in the holiday season. Piles of solicitations from myriad organizations serving the needs of homeless children and helpless animals, museums and arts organizations tug at our consciences and yank at our heart strings.

Many of us experience these requests as demands and may resent what they experience as an obligation and feign the spirit of generosity.

On the other hand, what a great pleasure to give out of a real sense of gratitude and appreciation!

We know there is no strict correlation between economics and generosity. Some people possess no more than the basics and find giving easy. While others with an abundance of material wealth struggle to give.

One explanation lies in a person's connection to money beyond the obvious power to purchase things. Money and material possessions can be an attempt to replace the love and nurturance the individual didn't receive in early childhood. But "stuff" doesn't gratify in the way genuine connections (of caring) about other people do. It is those caring relationships with other people (and animals and causes) that give our lives meaning and fill us with positive feelings of generosity.

The classic story of Scrooge in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol reinforces the truth of this disparity. Scrooge is a wealthy but stingy business man who hates Christmas and abuses his employees, demanding long hours and paying a meager salary.

But one night the three ghosts of Christmas visit him in a nightmare to inform him that people will be glad to be rid of him and he will die a miserable death if he doesn't change.

Dickens, a genius writer and natural psychologist, intuited the roots of stinginess. The character of Scrooge experienced emotional deprivation early in his life. His mother died and his father resented his son's existence. Furthermore, Scrooge botched up past opportunities to reform. He had been engaged to a beautiful, loving woman, who left him when she realized he cared more about money than about her.

In brief, Scrooge's nightmare transforms him from a miserable miser to a generous and happy person. He also benefits by gaining a sense of his power to lessen suffering in the world.

We can experience gratitude and relief that our contributions are not vital to each and every cause; there are others to pitch in. Reality dictates that we have to be prudent and selective in our giving in order to take care of ourselves.

For example, in an overwhelming spirit of generosity, Ms. W. almost gave away her savings. Had she done so, she would be unable to take care of herself and would become a burden to others. In brief, indiscriminate generosity could turn into disaster.

To return to the pile of solicitations, they can be organized into the following categories to help us decide to whom to give:

1. I have to give to this person/organization/cause because it is politic for my career, public image, etc., to do so.

2. I really want to give to this person/organization/cause out of feelings of gratitude and/or kinship.

3. I really don't have to give to this individual/cause/organization and won't.

We can keep in mind the goal to experience generosity as power, not depletion. Expressing authentic giving, melts resentment like ice around the heart and becomes a gift to ourselves.

Conclusion: Generosity is a state of mind that goes beyond the possession of money and material goods and relates to feelings of abundance from positive connections. To own an authentic sense of generosity is a gift we give ourselves.