Generosity and Our Understanding of Money

From the book The Generosity Path: Finding the Richness in Giving:

The most culturally challenging action in a consumer society may be giving money away to benefit others, with no reciprocation or personal benefit expected in return. American culture emphasizes earning and financial status, spending beyond basic needs, and aspiring to various forms of luxury. It is indeed the American Dream, even if you have to go into unreasonable debt to achieve it. In addition to this get-and-spend mentality, media messages fuel fears of economic insecurity, even in “boom” times. We often hear that Social Security will go bankrupt before we retire, or that Medicare will not survive, that real-estate fluctuations will drive us into deeper recession, and always that we have not saved enough to prepare for old age. The American culture is not an easy one in which to be generous.

It is impossible to talk about financial generosity without also talking about our understanding of money, specifically our fears of poverty and fantasies about wealth. Choosing to give money away charitably means we are not stockpiling some our resources for our own future and are voluntarily reducing our net wealth. In this way, charitable donations are an expression of our beliefs and values about money. The pop song Royals by Lorde illustrates how psychologically complex our approach toward money and wealth can be.

At this point the Lorde song Royals is old news. Despite being a New Zealander, Lorde is an international sensation who won Song of the Year (as the songwriter) and Best Pop Solo Performance for Royals at the Grammy Awards in January 2014. Still I find the song’s lyrics notable as they express ambivalence to a life with financial wealth; the glamor and comforts specifically associated with a rock-star lifestyle. There is attraction to be sure, especially in naming the various brands and decadent activities that are featured in the popular songs the narrator hears. And there is rejection, in favor of being “queen” in her personal relationships. Or perhaps it is resignation to the great chasm that separates the life that the song’s narrator inhabits and the life of the “Royals.”

Your internal life does affect how you act in the world; your approach to philanthropy effects the outcomes of your gifts. All of your gifts come from you, so the you is important.

Listen to the song again. Are you attracted to the wealthy lifestyle depicted in the song? Do you believe the narrator’s rejection of it? Do you have some ambivalence to higher levels of wealth? How do you consider your own lifestyle and the financial capability behind it? Do you dream about living a different style of life, with different resources and spending? If so, where do financial generosity and charitable donation fit into that hoped-for life?


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