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Christmas and the beautiful mystery of generosity

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Dec. 23, 2010 at 7:18 pm with No Comments »
December 23, 2010 4:22 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Gifts define Christmas. It’s a good occasion to celebrate the virtue of giving.

St. Paul quoted Jesus as teaching, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Jesus – viewed by Christians as God’s supreme gift to humanity – relentlessly emphasized acts of selfless generosity.

The desire to give arises from some deep well in human nature. Tips for waiters, of all things, point to a human impulse to share. Psychologists and economists have long puzzled over the fact that travelers leave tips at restaurants they’ll never return to.

In the book, “Why smart people make big money mistakes,” financial analyst Gary Belsky and psychologist Thomas Gilovich try to make sense of the practice:

“If you think about it, tipping is about as irrational as can be: folks routinely giving away money without a clear obligation to do so, to people they’ll likely never see again, in places they’ll never revisit, for a level of service that may not have even pleased them …

“It’s not enough to say that the self-interest in tipping is the guarantee of good service. Since tipping comes after the meal, that would only explain why people might tip in neighborhood restaurants or other eateries to which they are certain they will return. It does not explain why travelers tip the waiter at a Denny’s in, say, Little Rock, when they know it is unlikely they will ever eat there again.”

For many – if not most – people, unselfish giving simply feels good. They seem hard-wired to assist others.

Tangible evidence of this abounds in South Sound. FISH Food Banks of Pierce County, for example. St. Leo’s Food Connection; Goodwill Industries; the Pierce County AIDS Foundation; the Lindquist Dental Clinic for Children; Exodus Housing; Habitat for Humanity.

There are any number of other charities, nonprofits and humanitarian efforts sustained by volunteers and donors. Few would exist without generosity. Some givers do benefit from tax deductions or networking opportunities, but most would be “better off” materially if they stuck to making money, playing and watching television.

Altruism doesn’t always carry the day. It was disappointing in November to see voters repeal the new sales tax on candy, and the new 2-cents-per-bottle surcharge on pop and bottled water, which would have increased state revenue by more than $200 million over the next.

That would have been enough money to save subsidized health insurance for 66,000 Washingtonians who couldn’t otherwise afford medical coverage. They now stand to lose their coverage completely under the governor’s proposed budget.

One thing is clear: Whether generous souls extend themselves to the needy for religious reasons or just out of the goodness of their hearts, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to do so over the next few years.

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