- Name the virtue that's the basis of all human morality.
- Which fundamental virtue is seldom discussed, never identified as a moral or social imperative, never urged on children, never used to shame leaders?
PSYCH! They're one and the same.
We endure a lot of banging on these days about "truth". It's one of the most popular Twitter hashtags, and the worst thing a candidate can be accused of not having. A whole tribe of conspiracy freaks are called "truthers"; another of protesters relentlessly "speaks truth to power".
And how about this gem from my Internet games collection: Google the string "truth about" (with quotation marks). Then binge on thousands upon thousands of pages wherein CRAP! is repeatedly DEBUNKED! by thousands of EXPOZAYS! of everything from GUNS! to EGGS!!!
Truth is a weapon-word. It can be wangled and pounded into any shape, and then used to bludgeon your enemies ad infinitum. By contrast, generosity makes a punky cudgel at best. Observe:
- "I say before all of you today, that my opponent is demonstrably UNGENEROUS!" (Such a broadside will probably send her more votes than it subtracts.)
- "The proposed legislation is of unprecedented generosity." (Can you hear the chorus of consternation?)
- "You should take anything my ex says with a grain of salt. Generosity is not his strong suit." (Admit it; you immediately took this as a confession of guilt on the part of the speaker.)
We don't just ignore generosity; we actively discourage it. Torture became a proud part of Western democracy on the insistence that we can no longer afford to be generous. Critics of the Black Lives Matter movement deplore the generosity that slogan implies. At base, the American obsession with firearms is about an alleged right to be ungenerous. "Vex me and I'll shoot you."
Health care, refugees, economic policy, welfare, education, criminal justice, immigration… every bone of contention before us today rests on the assertion that generosity is a character flaw.
It is not. Generosity is in fact the highest expression of evolution, the mother of all virtues. It's the origin of forgiveness, and the rationale for acceptance. Generosity makes us human – or not. None of its army of antonyms – stinginess, greed, vengeance, legalism, self-centredness, judgment, cowardice, indifference, narrowness, materialism, shallowness, hostility, bigotry, triumphalism, stubbornness – are counted strengths. At least not when called by name.
Therefore, as is my habit, I've worked up a meditation to discipline my monkey mind (which truthfully amounts to a Sasquatch mind) to remain alert to the state of generosity in my life and actions. Thus:
- How generous are the propositions of this speaker, this scholar, this candidate?
- How generous is this religious teaching?
- How often do I suggest generosity to those younger? (If you're a parent: how often do you advise your kids to be generous, and demonstrate it?)
- How often do I pronounce or write the words "generosity" and "generous"?
- How often do I use the word "ungenerous" in argument, and defend it when sneered down?
- How often did I reconsider my actions today, in light of generosity?
- To whom was I more generous: strangers, or friends and family? (You'll find it's usually the former. Is this moral, or even logical?)
- What did I give today? (If, like me, your day often includes little human contact, then what did I give to plants and animals, or humanity, or myself?)
- Did I give anything I didn't initially want to give? Did I only give things I was prepared to part with?
And so on.
Lakota scholar Luther Standing Bear, assessing the moral worth of the nation-state, concluded: "Civilisation has been thrust upon me… and it has not added one whit to my love for truth, honesty, and generosity."
My experience (minus the thrusting) has been identical. Henceforward I'm making generosity a conscious, deliberate part of my monastic practice, both in what I expect of myself, and how I measure others.
(Prince Vessantara Gives Away His White Elephant, from the Vessantara Jataka, courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Wikimedia Commons.)