You Can’t Give To Take: When Generosity Goes Too Far

I was visiting my friend Kelly in New York City a few years ago and learned a surprising lesson that stuck with me since.

No it wasn’t, “Don’t sit next to the naked dudes in the Turkish baths.”

It was this simple phrase: “You can’t give to take.”

I was drunk off the big city (though we made it through weekend close to alcohol-free), so I didn’t really digest this morsel of wisdom until days later when my mind was no longer running on adrenaline and could function properly.

You can’t give to take.

What does this mean?

Does it mean that when you give a gift to someone, you can’t expect a gift in return?

Does it mean that when you do a favor for someone, you can’t expect them to do a favor for you?

Does it mean that you are to serve others, even if it means sacrificing, without wanting the same treatment?

Is it even possible to give someone something without getting anything in return?

Of course, I explored this concept and have written this article to report my findings.

First, let’s talk about giving and generosity.

What is generosity?

Simply put, generosity is the willingness to give.

We often go one step further and say that generosity is the willingness to give without expecting anything in return.

Some people believe that generosity is when we give without being asked to give. It’s more like proactive giving.

I’m more of a minimalist and stick to the “generosity is the willingness to give” definition.

All those other definitions draw too much attention to “I” and “me” instead of letting the focus be on others.

Some people don’t want what we give

I’m often accused of over-sharing information. For instance, I’ll reliably update a friend when my underwear noticeably shifts and situates itself…well, you know where. (TMI for a wellness blog?)

Though I’m freely giving away my personal information, no one really wants to hear it.

This is a silly example intended to lighten the mood, but it shines light on an actual conundrum.

If no one wants what I’m giving, but I give it to them anyways, am I being generous?

I don’t think so.

When we give what no one wants, we’re giving for our own satisfaction, which isn’t generous because generosity is about others, not us.

Giving doesn’t have to be big

You know the commercials that tug at your heart strings. The ones with skinny children looking all doe-eyed as they walk around their hut looking for food.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could save their lives by providing enough money for food, medicine, clothing, and education?

Of course it would! And I totally think we should help those children and other people who are in desperate need.

But not everyone wants to and everyone is going to.

Guess how much money I’ve donated to the starving children in third-world countries in the past year? Zero dollars.

I still care and still use my money, time, and energy to help and do good things for the world, but I’ve let go of this notion that I can save the entire planet from all its woes. (Check out Practical Ways To Save The World: How To Make A Difference Every Day)

These days, the focus is on my immediate community where I live and helping the people I interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Our egos want us to be global heros, but we can exercise generosity anywhere, anytime, and without any grandiose gestures.

Giving can be simple. And when we keep it simple, it’s easier to leave our egos out of it.

When generosity goes too far

Generosity has its limits. And its that darn ego of ours that sets and tests such limits.

Generosity goes too far when we have ulterior motives – when we give for reasons other than giving.

Sometimes ulterior motives are obvious, but most often they are subtle and we don’t even realize we have them.

For example, have you ever wanted to give someone a birthday gift, Christmas gift, wedding gift, or some other congratulation gift, but that someone tells you not to buy a gift? And did you do so anyways?

Have you ever taken someone out to dinner to celebrate with the intention of paying, but the other person beats you to the punch? And were you upset by this?

The reasons we buy gifts for people who don’t want gifts and get upset when we can’t pay for their meal is because we let giving be more about us than them.

Think about this.

We start out focusing on them, but when things don’t pan out the way we want or envision, we take it personally and the whole gift-giving experience becomes more about what we want than what they want.

Let’s face it. At our core, we are self-serving creatures. This isn’t an evil trait, but it does require awareness and management to keep our egos in check.

We can’t give to take

It’s not a crime to experience enjoyment while giving. Our personal enjoyment is certainly useful motivation to give in the first place and to keep giving.

But we must keep our egos in check.

When things don’t go our way, we must always check back in with the reason why we give. And if we stray from that reason, making giving more about us than others, we must take a step back and reorient our thinking.

Let my friend Kelly’s simple words be your mantra, your check-in: You can’t give to take.

Thanks, Kel, for giving us this powerful truth.

(photo credit: Day Eighteen – Change by Edd Sowden via Flickr license)

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