Self Improvement — 09 December 2005
The blessings and hardships of giving to others

This is the season of giving. We start by giving thanks for our blessings and then proceed to give gifts and help others. Though giving is highly valued in our culture, it is not an easy undertaking for many and is even difficult for some.

Since being helpful, generous, kind and charitable to others feels so enriching, you would think that it should also come easily to most people. Actually, it is not an innate tendency, but a learned one.

Altruism and sharing are behaviors that are taught to humans from an early age and require repeated lessons to become ingrained. Instinctively, we are geared toward securing our own personal survival and safety and need to be socialized into sharing attention, resources and love with others. Kindergarten lessons of taking turns, respecting others’ space and belongings, and being a contributing and concerned member of a group, are hard to absorb and practice because they dispel the illusion of our own centrality and omnipotence.

At the same time as we are encouraged to be helpful, concerned and caring for others, our culture also promotes individual achievement, success and self-reliance. These values may be in conflict with each other. Yet, we also know that our involvement and contributions to one another are essential to us as individuals and a society.

In addition, there are also differences in our innate inclination to be generous. Some people are more prone to sharing, while others are inclined to preserve their own assets and energies. To disparage selfish behavior we have developed negative terminology about non-givers such as: cheapskate, selfish, tightfisted, miserly, and stingy. Those who are called these names often rationalize their behavior as appropriate, justify their withholding from giving by professing to have their own problems, rationalize their behavior by attributing undesirable characteristics to those in need, distort reality by claiming that helping others only hinders their autonomy and shames them.

Whatever the excuse, it is easy for us to be judgmental of those whom we believe could or should be more generous. Yet, few people can pride themselves in doing all they can to help and support others on a regular basis. It takes a natural disaster, a terrorist act, great pain and suffering to awaken our empathy and generosity. Most people are compassionate and caring, some are exceptionally giving of themselves while others react out of guilt, shame about their own blessings, or expect to be rewarded for their kindness.

It takes a season of giving, recitation of cases of suffering families, repeated pledges and drives, to propel people to do what is moral and decent. It is not because most people are not kind or aware it is because even the more generous of us are engrossed in their own life struggles and use their meager free time to restore their own energy by resting, recreation and family time. Investing in the welfare of others takes a secondary position to personal agenda, which is often overwhelming enough.

So before we judge those who we think do not give enough to others, lets rotate the mirror and face ourselves:

• When was the last time you thought about calling a friend to offer help and postponed it?
• Do you recall thinking of saying a kind word to cheer someone up, but withholding it?
• Have you responded to the pain of a friend by sharing your own misery – rather than listening empathically?
• Did you ever experience dismissing guilt feelings you had about not doing more for others?
• Have you recently avoided contact with a person whose life circumstances made you feel uncomfortable, such as a street person?
• Have you postponed visiting the sick, comforting the bereaved or listening to a depressed person?
• When asked for help, did you feel that you had already given enough?
• Can you truly feel that you donate enough, give sufficient time and energy to those in need?

A giver is not necessarily someone who gives the most, but someone who gives regularly.

Consider adding a new form of giving this year that is likely to be stimulating and self-rewarding enough to sustain you throughout the year. Other people’s assessment of your generosity does not define you. Only your own inner voice of wisdom gives you solace when you are congruent with your own values. A giver is someone whose internal self-appraisal keeps him or her feeling whole.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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