David Carlson: The gift of giving


It is never easy for a person to admit that he has totally misread a situation. This was my experience, and now is a good time for me to come clean about an assumption that I learned was totally off-base.

Through the first decades of my career as a college professor, I was aware that there was a department at the college that was tasked with raising money from donors. An impression that I picked up and accepted was that the people in this department had the unenviable job of convincing people with financial means to part with their money.

It wasn’t until later that I realized that my view of their work was not only distorted, but also deeply cynical. In the false assumption that I had of this department’s work, I lived with a degree of superiority. As a faculty member, I had a noble profession. Unlike employees in that department, I didn’t have to go begging.

It wasn’t until I became friends with several people in this department that I realized how wrong I had been. My first mistake had been to misunderstand potential donors. Many people with financial resources are not the misers presented in Victorian novels, versions of Ebenezer Scrooge before his conversion. They are people who are looking to share their abundance in ways that match their passions and interests.

And that changed my view of colleagues whose job it was to identify and meet with potential donors. They were not beggars, but rather matchmakers, reaching out to people with means who have a love of education. And not education in the abstract, but education in a personal sense as transforming the lives of students. In many cases, donors were remembering people whose generosity had changed their lives when they were young.

It is funny how correcting a false view of one thing leads to other revelations. About the same time as I realized how distorted was my view of philanthropy, I read about recent brain studies that determined that the human brain is happier and more awake when a person gives to others rather than when a person gives something to one’s self. I understood that donors might donate because of the joy that it brings not only to the lives of others, but also to their own lives.

That insight led me to reflect on my own life. My wife and I are far from being big donors, but much of our daily mail, it seems, is from charities that we give to or have contributed to in the past.

And that’s when the penny dropped. Over my lifetime, there are a number of purchases that I’ve made for myself that I have regretted, and I suspect that I am not alone in regretting those decisions. Haven’t most of us found something in our closets or in storage that makes us scratch our heads as we mutter to ourselves, “Why in the world did I ever buy that?”

But then I realized that the opposite is also true. I cannot recall even one donation that my wife and I have made that we later regretted. Not once have we wished that we could have money back that we gave to others.

So, if today is a day when we’d like to feel more of the joy of living — and when wouldn’t we want to feel more joy?—perhaps the best prescription is to take a few moments and donate to a cause that is dear to our hearts.

As the wisest teacher whom I know once said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

David Carlson is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].

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