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Helpful or Generous?

I was talking with a friend today about the difference between being generous and being helpful. I think that the two are often confused, but really, they are very different things. I can’t say that I have it all figured out, but am starting to see some clear dividing lines. Helpfulness, it seems to me, involves an inherent power differential and some strings attached. Generosity, on the other hand, is it’s own power, it’s own reward and flows as freely as we let it.

To be clear, I think they’re both good. I think there are a lot of very helpful people in the world and I’m grateful for them. But generous people? Far fewer of those, and I wish I knew why.

I wonder, however, if the absence of generosity has to do with the fear of the “gift” not being received in the spirit in which it was intended. (Which, in my mind, is a string, attached, holding it back.)

Some thoughts:

  1. Helpfulness requires someone to ask for help. Generosity is help without being asked.

  2. Helpfulness involves someone being in a more powerful position and being asked to help the person with less. Generosity is a seized opportunity to make a difference.

  3. Helpfulness often necessitates an explanation, reason and plan for why one needs the help and how they will make the most of it, or repay it. Generosity is one person wanting to make someone else’s life easier in some way, without asking why or what will come of it.

  4. Helpfulness is solving someone else’s problem your way. Generosity is giving someone the means to solve their problem their way.

A scenario:

Jill cannot pay for something that she needs. Her friend Jack can easily pay for it. Jack is aware of the situation.

  1. Helpful – Jill asks Jack for help, Jack asks why it is needed, how the money will be used and how he will be paid back. He then, very sweetly, loans Jill the money that she needs.

  2. Generous – Observing his friend in need and knowing that he can easily afford it, Jack gives Jill the money.

I can argue the merits of either situation, they’re both good. Jill should be able to stand up and ask for the things she needs, and really, should be responsible for her actions and their repercussions. Helpful, however is a business situation, it’s commerce. You give me this, and I give you that in exchange.  You give me information and assurances, I give you money.

But, why does Jack need that? Does he need it acknowledged, however tacitly, that he is in the one-up position here? It’s not his job to protect his friends. But he can. Just because, no questions asked, no expectations issued. Which is what makes it generous if he decides to. He doesn’t have to.

The paradoxical reality here, is that there is great power in being able to receive. In my experience, the helpful people who THINK they’re generous are often the least able to receive. They often seem to have internalized the idea that they are the “givers,” the ones with power who help the others. And they often even express that they are so glad to be able to HELP people. (I’ve never heard anyone say they are so happy to be able to be generous with people, so I think this difference is tacitly understood.)

If it feels so good to give, then why not let others feel good in the same way? Let them give to you, however they can?

Jack is now sick with the flu. Jill is a great cook and likes to care for people. She’s busy, but truly likes to cook and take care of people. Although he has money to give and she doesn’t, she has “caring” to give. Jack has always been there for her and she offers to come make him some soup and maybe do a load of laundry or something. Jack doesn’t let her because he thinks she’s too busy, or he should be able to take care of himself.

He is making decisions for her and controlling her decisions. In refusing her help he is essentially telling her that he knows  how she should be spending her time better than she does. More than that, he is not letting her be generous with him, as if it is something she is in too weak a position to really be able to afford. As if him taking from her is a bad thing. However, he cannot say that him taking is “bad,” without tacitly telling her that taking in general is “bad,” therefore, when she takes from him, it’s bad in his mind. If giving is good, it’s good for all. If taking is bad, it’s bad for all.

Of course, giving and taking is the basis of any relationship.

These things pop up all the time in relationships, in very small ways. But they can add up.

Being girls, we began talking about generous lovers, or lovers who think they’re generous. Personally, I think that any person – male or female – needs to be able to ask for what they want sexually. But the other person has to actually listen. So let me make up a sexual scenario – and promise that it is just an illustration.

Betty asks Bob what he wants, and says she’ll do it. Bob says he wants her to wear the red lingerie that he likes. Betty says she’s happy to wear lingerie, but not the red, she’ll wear the black instead. Betty thinks that she’s being generous because she gave him what he asked for. But she didn’t.

It’s fine, Betty should always be true to herself. However, he told her what he wanted and really, she said “no.” She very likely thinks that she gives him what he wants. He  very likely thinks there’s no point in asking for what he really wants because she won’t give it to him.

The point here is that being generous is almost exclusively about the OTHER person. There can be no “buts” in generosity. No strings. No “yes, if.” And to be truly generous, she wouldn’t make her lover ask all the time, because she would have been paying enough attention to know what he wants, and give it to him without making him ask.

Making someone ask for help inherently puts them in the “one-down” position. It is not unlike begging. Making someone beg is not generous. And giving them what they beg for can feel like a debt.

That debt is no different for a blow job than it is for a pile of money. And badly leveraged debt can destroy economies and relationships alike.

There are times when being helpful is what’s called for – but you need to be clear that that’s what it is. Helpful, not generous.

There are times when being generous is what’s appropriate. And, in my opinion, it is even more important that it is acknowledged for what it is. None of us have to make soup for each other, but really, that’s what makes life so wonderful. Knowing that when you need it, someone will be there for you, no questions asked. And that when you have something pure and generous to give, there is someone who will be so happy to receive it, no questions asked.

It’s the only time that we are all on an even playing field. When we give to each other, receive each other’s gifts, exactly when, where, why and how we can. Just because we can, no matter how big or small.

Generosity is about receiving just as much as giving. And it is always about intent, not about what is being given.


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