Generosity, Stinginess, and Over-Giving: Intention Determines What's Too Much, Not Enough, or Just Right September 28, 2023 08:53

An open hand reaches for trees and patches of blue sky in the distance

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In general, most people would agree that generosity is an important quality to cultivate, practice, and encourage in mainstream society. I also think that most people recognize that selfishness and stinginess are polar opposites to generosity. I would add, though, that over-giving is just as counterproductive as miserliness. Whenever giving and receiving are out of whack, stinginess and over-giving can rise to the surface and pollute the pond of generosity.

According to Venerable Thubten Chodron, Abbess of Sravasti Abbey, generosity is linked with wisdom and bodhichitta, and our far-reaching attitude or motivation behind giving to others is extremely important. “The mind is not really giving, if generosity is linked with pride,” she says.

If we give to others and then regret it later, if we give to those who won’t appreciate or need what we have to offer, or if we give in order to flaunt status or to dominate others, our gifts become tainted transactions. Not only do these gifts lose significance and meaning, but they also destroy any possibility of merit because our motivation wasn’t grounded in sincerity, respect, and humility.

When it comes to generosity, everything hinges on intention, and intentions aren’t always obvious or easy to detect from the perspective of the casual observer.

I grew up among family members who had serious baggage around generosity and sincere giving. For example, when I was a kid, it wasn’t uncommon for my mom to give a gift to my sister or me—only to take it back later. Usually, these were small things—a framed photograph, a pair of earrings, a book or a record—but, still—the taking back, usually motivated by regret or attachment on my mom’s part, felt like an “ungiving” as well as a covert power play.

A strange variation on a theme of this occurred many years later after Jim and I were married. My grandmother (my mom’s mom) had died, and my mother gave me a beautiful crystal candy dish. I was led to believe that it had belonged to my grandmother, and my mom gave it to me as a remembrance or keepsake of her mom.

I found out later that this same candy dish was actually a wedding gift that my aunt Christine (my mom’s sister) had given to Jim and me soon after we were married. Aunt Christine lived several states away, and she sent this gift to my mom’s address with the understanding that my mom would give it to us after our wedding.

Instead, my mom kept the crystal candy dish for herself, and then gave it to me several years later (out of consolation, or guilt). She never mentioned that Aunt Christine had given it to us many years beforehand. I discovered this many years later (from my aunt Christine)—and graciously thanked her for her generosity.

When I was a kid, gifts were transactional during the holidays. They were carefully counted, measured, and weighed. Often, my sister and I were given identical gifts to prevent any feelings of jealousy. Consequently, exchanging gifts in my family wasn’t open-hearted, generous, or even sincere. It was often an obligation laced with manipulation.

Withholding gifts and taking gifts back are forms of stinginess, selfishness, and emotional manipulation.

As a result, it took me a while to find a healthy balance between giving and receiving. Early on in my teaching career, for example, I made a habit of over-giving my time, effort, and resources, and I was exhausted and depleted as a result. Giving and doing so much for others while neglecting my own needs was not healthy or helpful.

Over-giving can also be a manipulative power play and a form of attention-seeking behavior. For example, I attended a dinner a few years ago with several friends. We met for a wonderful meal and an evening of camaraderie and connection. At the end of the evening, one of our friends volunteered to pay for everyone’s dinner. He sat at the head of the table and waved the waiter over with a flourish as he whipped out his credit card.

We had had gathered as individuals and as equals around a table, but my friend’s act of generosity struck me as just that—an act. I felt grateful, but I also felt uncomfortable. I wondered what his motivation was—was this an offering of sincere generosity? Was he flaunting his status? Was he claiming some sort of authority? Did he struggle with receiving? Was I being paranoid?

Clearly, I had a lot of questions, and it motivated me to consider my own intentions whenever I give to others. It also motivated me to consider HOW I give to others. For example, I’m a big fan of anonymous blessings and quiet contributions as opposed to showy public displays of generosity. I also prefer to give sincere, occasional compliments as opposed to over-the-top, gish-galloping geysers of flattery on the daily.

For me, one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is that generosity doesn’t have to be material possessions or money. Time and attention are valuable gifts. Teaching is a generous offering. A meaningful conversation—a heart-felt card, letter, phone call, or text—a genuine smile and warm greeting—all of these can be sincere, generous gifts. What matters most is the intention—if the intention is respectful, kind, and compassionate—and devoid of desires or
agendas, then it is pure, it is valid, and it is more than enough.

According to the Psychology Today article, “Are You an Over-Giver?” Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, asserts that over-giving is not a symptom of ultimate selflessness. Rather, it “essentially comes from an inability to receive.” Over-giving, like stinginess, is an indication that the balance of give and receive are out of alignment. Kleiman claims, “If you are unable to take in love, attention, or help from others and accept it completely, you are giving from an empty heart.” 

In over-giving, the gift is more about the giver than the recipient. In this article, Kleiman also includes a list of common indications that over-giving, rather than generosity, may be present:

1. It’s important for you to be the giver rather than the receiver in relationships.
2. It’s common for you to feel guilty when someone gives to you.
3. You tend to put the needs of others first and neglect your own.
4. You tend to apologize about not being able to give in the way that you’d like.
5. You are unable or uncomfortable about asking for help.
6. Your own insecurities are at the root of your tendency to over-give.
7. You over-give in order to feel loved, respected, valued, or admired.

In other words, over-giving fulfills unmet needs or serves an agenda, as opposed to generosity, which flows from sincerity, humility, and kind-heartedness.

I have certainly been guilty of both stinginess and over-giving many times in my life. I’ve experienced the tight pinch of restrictive stinginess, of not giving enough time, attention, or resources to others in need.

I have also experienced the expansive, controlling gluttony of over-giving: showering gifts or compliments to those who didn’t want, appreciate, or need my excessive offerings. 

Stinginess and over-giving are limited and limiting, and I am mindfully on the lookout for them in my own interactions with others.

Generosity is an important virtue—it’s one of the six perfections, and it’s usually first on the list! At the heart of healthy generosity is openness, kindness, and clarity. What is given is given (for keeps) with the sincere wish to benefit others in a humble, respectful, and appropriate way.

Thank you for taking the time to read or listen to this month’s offering. Please visit the Middle Moon Malas collection. Several new malas have been recently added. These malas make generous gifts for others and for yourself. May they be of benefit.

Photo Credit: Rui Silvestre courtesy of Unsplash