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081 - On Generosity And Gratefulness - Moral Letters for Modern Times

Though a person first does you a favor and then commits a harm, you should value the former greater than the latter.
Rusty pier supports leading to a burnt out pier
Photo by James Bellerjeau

Today I want to offer up some sayings at the start rather than waiting until the end. These are made not as installment payments on my account but as gifts freely given. You will understand why by the time you are done reading this mail, if you do not know already:

It is more blessed to give than to receive.

These words are attributed to that most generous of givers, Jesus, who ultimately gave his own life for the benefit of humankind.

Was anyone met with greater ungratefulness than Jesus Christ? (Maybe Donald Trump, if it is not blasphemous of me to suggest?) Was anyone more deliberately misunderstood? Why was his message so threatening to those in power? I might have some thoughts on these questions at a later time, but I am inclined to begin our travels more on the worldly plane. Surely the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was someone who had cause to expect his every word to be carefully attended to and understood. He controlled mighty armies and dispensed untold wealth and privilege. But do you know what he taught himself to remember each morning, Deuteros? We can look inside his mind to share in his thoughts:

Begin each day by telling yourself: today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.

How wise Marcus Aurelius was and how generous. “What,” you say, “how do you see either wisdom or generosity in this mantra?” It is doubly clear to me. In the first case, he is wise in acknowledging the world as it truly is, not as he wishes it would be, even though the real world is often frustrating, scary, and dangerous. In the second case, and even more impressively in my view, Marcus Aurelius imputes no ill motive to those who would do him wrong, but rather ascribes their actions to ignorance. Surely this is a deliberate act of generosity.

“But do we not fool ourselves when letting evil-doers off the hook by assuming they harm us accidentally? If we are praising someone for clear-seeing, do we not need to clearly see and acknowledge that the interfering, ungrateful, and selfish are sometimes acting knowingly?” We know people act deliberately, true, but this does not mean we must assume they are acting to deliberately do us harm. They may not be aware of the impact of their words or actions. They may believe they are accomplishing a greater good, for themselves or others, in opposing us. What Marcus Aurelius is saying is that if these persons were wise and understood the true value of things, they would not act the way they do. So even though they act deliberately, they act from ignorance.

“Now you are confusing me,” you say. “Shouldn’t we weigh an act of generosity against an act of evil taking into account who does it and in what circumstance? If I do my friend a favor this week, and he does not repay me, can I not acknowledge the scales are tipped out of balance?”

The way to lift the fog, my dear Deuteros, and see things clearly when everything seems relative, is to pick the proper frame of reference. The frame of reference through which we view events is that of the well-ordered mind pursuing reason. We are seeking first to create the conditions for satisfaction and joy within ourselves so that we may ultimately create benefits for others. We seek to alleviate unnecessary suffering, and at a minimum to not contribute to the world’s stock of suffering, which is abundant enough without our adding to it.

Taking this perspective we can discern some important lessons. Though a person first does you a favor and then commits a harm, you should value the former greater than the latter. On the favor, we should strive to be grateful for the fact that we have received something, rather than merely valuing the thing itself. Material wants can never be satisfied by acquiring more material things. Greediness for things is in fact the root cause of ungratefulness. No sooner have I received something than I am looking for the next thing, and so do not value that which I have just been given. If we are not to be unthinkingly ungrateful ourselves, we must properly value the generosity giving rise to the favor. We do harm to ourselves when we do not appreciate that which we already have and that which we are given.

“But now,” you ask, “what of the harm done to us by others? Even if we accept that the harm is done from ignorance, are we not still harmed?” What, Deuteros, will you keep a detailed list of petty grievances like Raymond Babbitt in Rain Main, tracking every hurtful word uttered by his brother Charlie? Will we tot up the slights and insults of the day, and determine by nightfall whether we are three insults to the negative, or one compliment in plus? An insult delivered to a wise man causes no harm. On the contrary, we welcome the input! Either our accuser is right, in which case they have done us a favor by holding up a mirror to our faults, or they are wrong and they have only harmed themselves by uttering foolishness.

And consider this further. Do we improve our relationship with a would-be enemy by treating them as such? Do we improve their state of mind when we respond in kind to their insults? Do we try not only to keep an enemy but nurture their enmity? The Buddha answers this correctly when he says:

Overcome anger by peacefulness: overcome evil by good. Overcome the mean by generosity; and the man who lies by truth.

Contrast what happens when you treasure each act of kindness with the greatest gratefulness. Imagine that you forgive and forget every supposed injury that could do only psychological and not physical harm to you. Be moved by your own generous spirit to help others. In this frame of mind, benefits will accrue to you out of proportion to what you have given to others. By being the most generous of friends, the most helpful of neighbors, and the most forgiving of debaters, you will not only disarm and win over your fiercest critics but also find favors rebounding to your benefit. All this is but secondary, because the greatest benefit is to yourself: you will be both satisfied and at peace.

Be well.

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