Have you ever been bothered about how generous we should be with others in our relationships or whether it is better for us to just practice reciprocity or fair exchange for all our relationships except for a few friends and family – you do me a favour and I must return this favour when the need arises? The benefits for us by behaving in a purely reciprocal way in our business and our social lives are clear. So what role should generosity have to play?
Reciprocity is the practice of exchanging things or favours with others for mutual benefit. It is essential to capitalism, as, indeed, it is to other aspects of our social and domestic lives. It allows us to be clear and straightforward with others. But it has its consequences, as Charles Dickens’ wonderful novel, A Christmas Carol, shows.
The need for a balance between generosity and reciprocity is brought to us through the person of the protagonist, Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge’s business practices operate exactly within the law of the land, and strictly adhere to the rule of reciprocity. He does nothing illegal nor does he ask favours. Indeed, neither generosity nor friendship has roles to play in Scrooge’s world. I lend you a sum of money and you pay me back with an agreed interest.
Andre Comte-Sponville tells us that generosity can be understood as “the giving (to) the other person what is not his but yours, which he lacks”. Generosity helps us to be compassionate towards the disadvantaged or those less fortunate than ourselves, but also helps us to be fuller persons as well. Ebenezer Scrooge, in Christmas Carol, spurns any form of generosity and friendship with the world at large and is portrayed as a miserly old man sitting in his cold London money-lending office refusing to spend any money even on heating in the depths of winter.
Generosity helps us to be compassionate towards the disadvantaged or those less fortunate than ourselves, but also helps us to be fuller persons as well
The story opens in the office of Scrooge & Marley, money lenders, in Victorian London. Both Scrooge and Marley had become very wealthy in lending money mainly to the needy. The contractual terms of exchange were paramount for them and strictly applied. Now Marley was dead and Scrooge owned the whole business.
One Christmas Eve both Scrooge and his clerk, Bob Cratchit, are in the office when Scrooge’s nephew calls to wish his uncle a Happy Christmas and invite him to spend Christmas Day with his family. But Uncle Scrooge bitterly rejects his invitation and sends his nephew on his way lamenting “Every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.”. Later in the day two other gentlemen call to wish him a ‘Happy Christmas’ and ask for a donation for their charity to help the poor of the neighbourhood. They too were sent on their way by a mean-spirited and miserly Scrooge.
Later that evening, after returning to his home, Scrooge, according to Mr. Dickens, “receives a chilling visitation from the ghost of his dead partner, Jacob Marley. Marley, looking haggard and pallid, relates his unfortunate story”. As punishment for his greedy and self-serving life his spirit has been condemned to wander the Earth weighted down with heavy chains. Marley has come to warn Scrooge and save him from sharing the same fate. But he knows that Scrooge will not be persuaded easily to change his ways and become more generous and accepting of the friendships of others. From the rest of the story we all know how the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future came to visit him.
It was as the result of these visits that Scrooge grew more compassionate especially towards his clerk’s little boy, Tiny Tim. And as he grew compassionate, he also grew in generosity. It was the condition of Tiny Tim that finally thawed his heart. Finally the shock in seeing his own name on the headstone in the churchyard, prompts him to renounce his insensitive and avaricious ways. As one writer put it, Scrooge’s change was immediate and he “…rushes out onto the street hoping to share his newfound Christmas spirit. He sends a giant Christmas turkey to the Cratchit house”. Indeed, he treats Tiny Tim with kindness, provides lavish gifts for the poor of the neighbourhood, and treats his fellow human beings with kindness, generosity, and warmth. Yes, he even spends Christmas Day at his nephew’s house.
Reciprocity is a natural part of our behaviour, especially in our business and professional lives, but without its being accompanied by generosity and friendship we can easily become a mean-minded and miserly type of person, albeit in a modern way without compassion and hope.
Generosity cannot be limited; it has its place in all our relationships as does reciprocity. Solidarity with our neighbours and fellow human beings can help us to be more generous. Generosity, which is the opposite to selfishness, can act as a balance in our normal reciprocal behaviours
Reciprocity is a natural part of our behaviour, especially in our business and professional lives, but without its being accompanied by generosity and friendship, as Ebenezer Scrooge’s story reminds us, we can easily become a mean-minded and miserly type of person, albeit in a modern way without compassion and hope. Generosity cannot be limited; it has its place in all our relationships as does reciprocity. Comte-Sponville reminds us that solidarity with our neighbours and fellow human beings can help us to be more generous. We can identify with them more easily and feel compassion for their situations. Generosity, which is the opposite to selfishness, can act as a balance in our normal reciprocal behaviours. Happy Christmas, Nollaig shone dhuit, Happy Holidays to you all!!