In a time when the virtual is very real and the distant is becoming every day closer, we might be running the risk of unconsciously limiting human relations to the virtual realm. December is a time when most feel jolly and, as it goes, more generous with others. Whether this generosity is due to being in good spirits or the other way round, is difficult to tell and also difficult to establish as a general rule. Possibly, it is a positive ‘vicious circle’, so to say, triggered by a feel-good factor typical of this time of the year.
Yet ‘being generous’ may become a cliché, which risks undermining the whole concept of generosity. This is even more so when one considers the fact that we consider ourselves to be very generous, something we will hear several times during the next few weeks.
A reflection we should make is whether this generosity is a real or a virtual one. By real generosity I don’t simply mean that kind of generosity which is beyond the virtual. I mean that kind of generosity when one gives to someone without expecting something in return; to give something to someone because that person needs what I have to give. In other words to love thy neighbour. Sometimes however, I am afraid we (by ‘we’ I include myself as well) tend to content ourselves with virtual generosity; using any means (phone calls, SMS, post etc) to donate money but refrain from entering into real personal relations with those nearer to us who are also in need.
My concern is that this kind of generosity pushes us in being generous to those afar but not to Love thy neighbour. This is a reflection which was also raised in an interview I came across by chance on Youtube (which I encourage you to view – it’s in Italian), with Enzo Bianchi (Prior of Bose) and Massimo Cacciari (an atheist philosopher) about a book they wrote together, I comandamenti. Ama il Prossimo Tuo (“The comandments. Love thy Neighbour”.)
Bianchi here raises the point that it is easier for us to donate via SMS rather than loving those close to us. According to Bianchi loving others (and therefore also being generous towards them) implies that “I put the other close to me, in my daily space.” Adding to this Cacciari says that the “other” (il prossimo, il-proxxmu), being he who is not myself, includes also the most repellent other, which according to him is what the New Testament speaks of when referring to the love of thy neighbour, (il prossimo, il-proxxmu – Lq 10, 27, għajrek – Mt 22,39; Mk 12,33)
This is clearly not simply a question of geographical distance, because the persons we would be helping could very easily live a couple of metres away. This distance which I am referring to, and which Enzo Bianchi highlights, is a physical and personal distance from those towards whom we are generous. We are today frequently asked to send an SMS in favour of this or that charitable cause. Nothing wrong in that! But is this sms-generosity inducing us into thinking that this is enough? And so the question may be raised: “Are we, the citizen of the “most generous country” real(ly) generous after all?”
Considering that we live at such close quarters with each other (being the most densely populated state in Europe) this may seem to be an anachronism. Yet when one considers that without even noticing it we are increasingly becoming an individualistic society, as noted by Anthony M. Abela (Professor of Sociology at the University of Malta) in his paper Shaping a National Identity, such transformation is factual.
Our individualism unlike that of other countries is not of the kind where although you are surrounded by others you don’t dare even make eye contact with them. Being Mediterranean we tend to be more social in nature and culturally more prone to participate, body and mind, in common activities. Still, a sense of individualism is emerging slowly, perhaps faster than we think. Although it is to be noted that, more than ever, people are doing voluntary work both locally and internationally (real generosity indeed) one cannot help but notice that there is a sort of individualism which concurrently is also on the increase.
I get the feeling that the “give and take” and the “live and let live” attitudes are slowly but deeply being rooted into our common mentality. These attitudes, without realising, make us very egoistic beings. Usually adopted to describe, erroneously, relations between friends and companions and sometimes, between a married couple, these are attitudes which are one-sided. It is I who gives and it is I who takes. Both actions start and end with me. This is not what I believe to be “generous”.
But what does this have to do with being generous? I think that we should be very cautious in identifying our generosity in a give and take relationship. It should be more of a “give and receive” relationship where you allow yourself to be given something back and not always ‘take’ as if it were a sacred right. It similar to what Bianchi said, whereby you allow the other to enter your personal space. It is only then that we may become truly generous. Real generosity starts with allowing myself to receive and this is only possible when I understand that I am not self-sufficient. Only then I may become truly generous.