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July 17th, 2018

What does it mean to be generous?


Giving, kindness, benevolent, unselfish…


Who has the ability to be generous?


This is a much trickier, stickier question, because we are quick to associate a word like ‘giving’ with the things that we might have the ability to give, and those things are easiest to think of as a physical item, like some expensive gift.  Our quick and bad thinking leads us to believe that only those with lots of things or capital have the ability to be generous.


However, such a cursory glance at the word generous betrays a deeper meaning.


Again, etymology provides an interesting turn in the rabbit hole.


The first four letters of the word: gene- is a root that means


give birth.



This root is obvious in other words like genesis or genetic.










So what does it really mean to be generous if it has a root that means birth?  Our lazy thinking about the word leads us to believe that we need to have some rich cache from which we can dispense value to others, like having a fat wallet.  But to give birth to something is to have something come into being from seemingly nothing.  Where is that rich cache?

What really happens is that the right circumstances arise and allow for things to come together in ways they never had before. 


Think of a wind turbine for a moment.  The long blades of such a windmill create the circumstance for wind to expend it’s energy on those blades in such a way that the turbine turns and this gives birth to some electricity that we can then use in countless other ways.



The strange and misleading thing about the word generous is that we only attribute it to things that we like, that feel good, and that generally benefit us.  But if we lift this connotation and think about the word, it can yield a helpful perspective.  For example, think about this sort of zen koan:


He’s so generous with his complaining.


On first read, this just sounds amusing and possibly poking fun at the person who complains.  But with the positive connotation lifted, and that original meaning of ‘birth’ kept squarely front and center, that sentence makes perfect sense: He generates many complaints.


Another way to say is this:  He chooses to pick and take negative aspects of his day-to-day life and combine them into complaints.  He is a complaint generator.  His perspective is the circumstance that is allowing for things to come together and give birth to complaints.



The word ‘generator’ has a fairly neutral feeling attached to it when compared to a word like ‘generous’.  And yet, they really mean the same thing.







A fat wallet is not needed in order to be generous.  The truth is, we are all being generous at all times.  But we have to ask the question:  what exactly are we generating? 







It’s poignant to remember that saying:  give a man fish and he eats for a day, but teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for life.


Generally we only think of the first half of this saying when we think of what it means to be generous. 


It’s interesting to note that the second half – teaching a man to fish – requires some effort on the person who is receiving the generosity in order for the generosity to work.  Whereas the first half – give a man a fish – allows the man to be lazy, in fact, traps him into a laziness because comparatively no effort is required.


Upon hearing the saying, we are quick to realize that teaching a man to fish is far more generous.  And this makes sense on a deeper level with the meaning of generous.  Teaching a man to fish gives birth to a new skill that perpetuates through time, where merely giving him a single fish only temporarily solves the problem.  Teaching a man to fish gives birth to the man’s ability to generate his own food.  In this way we can see that generosity, true generosity is actually recursive, in that it repeats itself.  Think about how gossip generates more gossip and people are more likely to respond to a complaint with another complaint.




We must ask:

Are we generating a better world around us?  Or are we generating complaints and negativity and unneeded hyperbole, and destructive drama and slowly converting reality into a worse one?


Clearly we know which one we’d prefer, and this is maybe why the word generous has such a warm, fuzzy reputation.




So the question stands:  What are you generating?


Would another person call it generous?

Check out the Tinkered Thinking   Reading List

Dive in to the Archives

Podcast Ep. 93: The Generator

Tinkered Thinking

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