What is generosity and what does it mean for us today? Bishop David Evans explores how Jesus and Arthur Schopenhauer show us that generosity is the capacity to recognise the lack of something good in a person and to act to supply it.
What is the meaning of life? This question may become significant at any stage of life. It may be a fleeting feeling, or something more profound. The answer may seem obvious. The question may also seem perplexing, and prompt further reflection. This series is for all who are touched by the sense that life itself raises questions that need to be explored, for the sake of our own understanding of ourselves, of how we relate to other people, and how we may respond to God.
Bishop David Evans identifies six related topics that can begin to provide answers to this question. Our first resource is Scripture, the Word of God, which may be found to prompt and respond to many human questions. Modern Philosophy is another resource. This provides a rich array of how European thinkers have addressed the question of life’s meaning from the 17th to the beginning of the nineteenth century. There is no need to be put off by the word ‘philosophy’. According to the philosopher Pope St John Paul II, everyone has a philosophy of life. Reflecting with more systematic philosophers may help to broaden and deepen that personal philosophy.
Identity – it’s not all about me but about us.
Generosity – giving and giving away.
Adaptability – being and becoming.
Empathy – are we each other’s keeper?
Paradox – managing without resolution.
Community – building now and beyond.
Each theme follows the same model of:
A themed reflection from the Bible and modern Philosophical thinking.
An image and reflection inspired by the main theme.
A question and action point to help with individual or group discussion.
A short prayer to end the session.
Suggested further reading for going deeper.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.
The topic of the first reflection in this series was ‘it’s not all about me’. I reflected on St John the Baptist and on René Descartes who both had a vivid sense of who they were, while asserting that who they were in isolation was not enough to give a rich account of what their lives meant to them. The present reflection on generosity follows naturally from that description of human beings created by God and dependent on him, living in the world created by God, among other created things, particularly other human beings.
The passage from St Luke that I have chosen presents Jesus’ demands on the new people that he has gathered around himself – a people called to be holy. He was preparing them to receive the Holy Spirit in due course, by already living in this world the life that is as natural as breathing in the kingdom of God. Jesus invited people to become children of God, as he was Son of God, through the acts of reckless generosity that he demanded of those who wanted to follow him. In effect, he was asking them, and is asking us today, how highly do you value your life? Or paradoxically, how little do you value your life? Are you able to give it up for the sake of others, and for the sake of your Father, as I am doing?
Modern philosophers were concerned with living well, but often more from a theoretical than a practical perspective. It is difficult to find one who addresses the virtue of generosity. This is odd, in that philosophers of this period are generally religious. At the same time, they tried to avoid theological controversy by appealing to thought and reason rather than faith and the word of God. There is, though, one philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, (1788-1860), who identifies compassion as the foundation for morality. He contrasts compassion with egoism and malice, defining compassion as that ‘which wills the well-being of an ‘other’ (and by extension, noble-mindedness and magnanimity).’
There are three key words in this definition: ‘will’, ‘well-being’ and ‘other’. Schopenhauer believed that action is the result of the will being stimulated; that is, action is urged into being by something different from the will itself. In the case of compassion, the stimulus is the lack of something in someone other than oneself, which is to that other person’s benefit. Compassion is not passive. It is a positive response in the real world intended to stop a person suffering by providing them with what they lack.
Schopenhauer refuses to accept that compassion can be explained by putting oneself in another’s place and feeling that other’s pain as one’s own. This is too abstract. Compassion arises from recognising that someone else possesses a reality distinct from my own, and that their suffering is their own and not mine. Action to address the need that causes pain in the other person also has to be taken in the concrete circumstances of everyday life. Schopenhauer teaches us that compassion is not a feeling, but the taking of practical steps to restore a person’s well-being. He does not give examples, nor does he say how he would regard the examples given by Jesus and the motives for them; but he does point to the basis for moral action as the capacity to recognise the lack of something good in a person and to act to supply it.
What do you see in this image? A daughter feeding her mother at breakfast time? The morning sun warming the room while the plant in the window greets a new day. The mother’s posture and expression suggest that she might have dementia or have had a stroke. Her mind seems far away as she approaches the spoon of food.
Many years ago the roles of these two people would have been reversed. The mother getting the breakfast ready for her daughter before she goes to school. And here is the other side of life, the other side of generosity when we care for our parents in old age. It is impossible to imagine what the mother is thinking or feeling; we cannot empathise directly with her world of memories and the life she has lived. Yet her daughter is providing her with food, having helped to wash and dress her, perhaps taking hours to get to this shared table.
There is patience here, no tension at this point. We watch a calm moment before what may become a nightmare, especially if the mother refuses to eat, rejects her medication and rejects her daughter’s care. Does the mother even know it is her daughter? Or does she see a stranger alongside her? The bowl is still full, it is going to be a long day. And there are other tasks to be done.
Generosity and memories are what bind these two people. There might be duty and guilt too, but above all there is love for the other, for the vulnerable who knows us from birth and brought us into life. No matter how stressful this day might be, it is the wellbeing of her mother that matters most.
Where does this daughter live? Is she married with a family who also need her care? Does she have a busy job which consumes her energy, and so with little time to relax when her mother is this frail? Maybe she lives upstairs, her life put on hold. How long can she provide this help?
There is a small Christmas tree in the background but is it December? Or just a desire to remember the festivities and celebrate all over again? Christ doesn’t mind, he comes to us week by week in bread and wine. Our sense of time and place might shift and change but the seasons are never out of step in God’s extraordinary embrace. Christ’s gift of self keeps on giving whatever we face. This mother might be willing herself to love her daughter in words she can no longer speak, or she might just want to sleep. However this day turns out, it began with a generous heart.
With Lent approaching, what might you consider giving away to meet the needs of another?
Identify the people in your life that you have most difficulty with, pray for them, and for the grace always to treat them with kindness.
May I imitate Schopenhauer in his search for what is at the heart of generosity,
and in so doing, become a compassionate child of yours like Jesus your Son.
2 Corinthans 9: 8-15.
Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti. On Fraternity and Social Friendship, London: CTS, 2020.
Christopher Janaway, Schopenhauer, Oxford, 1990.
Janet Martin Soskice, The Kindness of God. Metaphor, Gender and Religious Language, Oxford: OUP, 2011.