The Art of Strengths Coaching

G is for Generosity

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People make choices every day. They can choose to be generous or greedy, to help people or hurt people. Each choice does, of course, have consequences.

So how do we learn generosity? How can we practice it in our daily lives? How can we be generous toward future generations? Let’s explore some of these themes.

The Philosophy and
Principles of Generosity

When I started working with people I had little training in psychology. Trying to get up to speed, I asked many people:

“What has helped you to grow most in your life?”

Several common themes emerged. People said things like:

“I had someone who encouraged me … They gave me time and made me feel the centre of their world …

“They focused on what I did well, but they were also prepared to tell the truth … They were generous and helped me to follow my way.”

Bearing this in mind, I tried to be an Encourager. This led to studying the art of generosity. More recently I have asked people about how they learned to be generous.

Some talk about parents, friends, teachers, managers, leaders and others who embodied the spirit of generosity.

Some talk about growing up in a certain culture – a school, a team or a work place – that encouraged people to develop and also give to others. Some talk about learning it from spiritual or religious traditions.

Some talk about critical points in their lives when they chose to be generous rather than – in its widest sense – greedy. They found that being caring led to both themselves and others feeling better.

If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to look back on your life and do the following things.

Describe some of the generous people you have known.

Describe the specific ways in which they showed generosity.

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Here are answers from two people who did this exercise.

“My parents always encouraged me. They had a positive attitude and this spread through the whole family. I had a debilitating illness for a year. But they focused on the activities I could do, rather than what I couldn’t do.”

“I had a marvellous teacher at school. She created a stimulating place that helped the students to learn. She spent hours working with each student. Looking back on that time, I realise how important that was for me, especially during my teenage years.”

Different people learn and express generosity in different ways. Some of these are simple actions. Some involve great personal risk.

Writing in The Altruistic Personality, Samuel and Pearl Oliner describe the actions of up to 500,000 non-Jews who risked their own lives to rescue the victims of Nazi persecution.

They were ordinary people, said Pearl and Samuel. They were farmers, teachers, entrepreneurs, factory workers, rich and poor, parents and single people, Protestants and Catholic.

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Different people helped the Jews in different ways. Some offered them shelter, some helped them escape from prison, some smuggled them out of the country.

The ‘Rescuers’ showed that people can do wonderful things, even in the midst of catastrophe. Why did people show such generosity? Here are some of the things they said:

“It was the right thing to do … My mother influenced me mostly by love. She was a warm woman, and we admired her for her wit, her wisdom, and her intelligence.

“I was always filled with love for everyone, for every creature, for things. I am fused into every object. For me everything is alive …

“I sensed I had in front of me human beings that were hunted down like wild animals. This aroused a feeling of brotherhood and a desire to help.

“We had to help these people in order to save them, not because they were Jews, but because they were persecuted human beings who needed help.”

The Practice of Generosity

There are many ways to give to others. Some people give in an economic way. Some give in an encouraging or educational way that embodies the spirit of generosity.

Some people show generosity by embodying the principles outlined by Erik Erikson in his view of The Generative Age. He described this as:

“A concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.”

Sometimes this is expressed through parenthood. But it can also take many other forms, such as doing fine work or leaving a positive legacy.

Erickson

Erikson’s view was that, up until this age, we often define ourselves in relation to other people. For example, our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, peers and authority figures. But The Generative Age brings a new awareness.

He said that we may then define ourselves in relation to humanity. He explained:

“Adults need to create or nurture things that will outlast them, often by having children or creating a positive change that benefits other people.

“Success leads to feelings of usefulness and accomplishment, while failure results in shallow involvement in the world.

“Older adults need to look back on life and feel a sense of fulfilment. Success at this stage leads to feelings of wisdom, while failure results in regret, bitterness, and despair.”

Some people embody elements of The Generative Age throughout their lives. As Anne Frank wrote:

“How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single minute before starting to improve the world.”

Anne

Human beings are often at their best when they choose to be generous. As the Buddha said:

“A generous heart, kind speech and a life of service and compassion are the things which renew humanity.”

You will, of course, choose to be generous in your own way. If you wish, try tackling the exercise on this theme. This invites you to do the following things.

Describe the specific things you can do to be generous in the future.

Describe the specific benefits of doing these things – both for other people and for yourself.

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