I’ve learned some important lessons about generosity and its emotional offspring, gratitude.
From Generosity to Gratitude
Magnanimous, “great-souled men,” as Aristotle called them, are generous. But generosity is about more than material gifts. It’s about expressing care, admiration, and love, and sharing knowledge, wisdom, and—if we have some to spare—money and possessions, too.
My friends’ generosity toward me have not involved material gifts, but rather their friendship, support, caring, even love—things far more valuable than money.
I’ve thought about the generosity of the teacher who loved to teach and taught his heart out for me; the doctors and nurses who were so expert in caring for me when I got broken up from landing on a rock while skiing; the friends who coached and advised me and gave me their time and listened to me when I was distressed; those who entertained me and made me laugh; those who inspired and motivated me; those who wrote the books that changed my life. All of these people did something special for me: they went above and beyond; they did something extraordinary and sometimes extreme; they gave me their support, help, and love, generously—abundantly.
Generosity is giving or providing something special in abundance.
I once heard, “You can no more give what you ain’t got, than you can go back to where you ain’t been.” Well, we all have something to give and, if we want to, we can give it generously.
Some of the most generous people are passionate teachers. They immerse themselves in their subjects, they thoughtfully prepare their lessons, they provide valuable knowledge, and, in some cases, they change our lives. We are grateful to and rightly revere such teachers (as I do Leonard Peikoff, in particular).
A friend of mine, a busy judge, had something to give, too. He was so moved by the plight of some elderly widows who appeared before him to probate a Will that he took time out of his evenings to visit them in their homes, where he would listen to and comfort them. When he told me about it, I was deeply moved. I detected the tender satisfaction he got and the joy he felt from the time he spent with them. Listening, kindness, compliments, admiration, and love are gracious gifts. Perhaps one of the most generous acts is to give our time, for our time is our life.
Once one feels grateful for an act of generosity, there’s an inclination to reciprocate. That’s why generosity given is often returned—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly. Acts of generosity tend to go back and forth and around in a cycle—a virtuous cycle. With generosity, then, what goes around truly does come around.
This is what happens when parents lavish each other and their children with gifts of time, love, knowledge, and guidance. As the children grow and mature, and are able to appreciate the love and generosity of their parents, they in turn feel gratitude and express love. A loving family is and has to be a generous family.
The world would be a more joyous place if more people practiced generosity.
Appreciation Leads to Gratitude and Love
Sometimes feelings of gratitude are dramatic and instantaneous. Often, however, reflection, contemplation, and conscious thought are required to appreciate something deeply and to understand its ramifications and consequences.
At Thanksgiving, I stop and remember what my friends have done for me, relish it, and assign a value to it. I consider each of the generous people in my life. I think about our experiences together, their help, the fun times and the sad times, the conversations and vacations, working and learning and traveling together, and more. I start to appreciate their generosity to me, and a feeling of gratitude emerges, as the emotional response to all that I appreciate about those people.
I’ve realized that our gratitude flows from appreciation for acts of generosity that benefit us.
I’m Learning about Appreciation
Appreciation is vastly expansive. We can practice appreciation all the time—with everyone and everything. We notice. Recognize. Consider. Evaluate. Small things, big things. We can relish experiences, suck up the sweetness from the present, from the past, and from contemplation of future pleasures to come.
I came to understand appreciation in a deeper and more satisfying way when I read Robert Heinlein’s bestselling science-fiction novel, Stranger in a Strange Land—which contributed the term “grok” to our language. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “grok” as: “To understand intuitively or by empathy, to establish rapport with…. to empathize or communicate sympathetically…. to experience enjoyment.” (Emphasis added.)
When we appreciate a person, we automatically feel some level of affection. When we specifically appreciate their goodness of character and engaging personality, our affection grows. When we discover and appreciate another whose particular character and personality correspond to our own, a friendship may grow. When we discover another who corresponds to our ideal character and personality, intense romantic love may bloom.
Appreciation is an action—an active thinking process. Only after going through the process of appreciation do I start to feel warmth, affection, respect, admiration, love—and gratitude.
Gratitude is different from appreciation. It is not action, it’s a feeling. It follows from appreciation. Appreciation can be about and for anything and everything—a person, place, experience, thing. But gratitude is only for a person, and thus is less common: it is a high-level, exalted emotion.
A friend of mine got a new iPhone as a gift. She was thrilled. She appreciated its look and feel. She appreciated all of its features and all the different apps. Then she thought about the person who had bought it for her—just a single person—and she felt gratitude for that person.
Which brings me to another thing I’ve learned about gratitude. Gratitude is an emotional response to an act of generosity. Someone did something special for me. They gave me: a gift, their time, their attention, their knowledge, their advice, their love, their smile. My feeling of gratitude arises spontaneously from their generosity.
I’m enormously grateful for the friends who have supported me through my life. I felt I had incalculable debt to them that could never be computed or repaid. But my response didn’t, and couldn’t, end with just a feeling. I felt a need to express how much I appreciated their generosity to me. Expressing gratitude is not just feeling, it is acting.
This Thanksgiving, I’m expressing my gratitude with this message.
November 23, 2022