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A Lesson in Generosity from South Africa

Problem: Generosity is often approached as a token act of kindness, a novelty. Solving life’s biggest problems requires that we approach generosity from a different perspective.

Solution: Where there is no expectation, there is no risk. Give freely and openly without expecting something in return.


Hello from Limpopo, South Africa where I’m hanging out on the Entabeni Game Reserve, recovering from a very difficult marathon and a stiff celebration hangover. Later today I’ll head to Tanzania to start my trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro. Hopefully my legs will co-operate. More on that in the future. For now, a much more important story.

From He Who Cannot to He Who Can

I can say with honesty that, over the last few days here in South Africa, I have never received such undue generosity. I’m not wealthy by any Western standard, but compared to the many amazing people that have served me, I’m quite privileged.

Yet, I got no indication that I was in some way undeserving of the hospitality.

Unconditional kindness—what a concept.

Ask most Americans about their views on Africa, and you’ll likely get a list of things that are going wrong and need to be fixed. “They could learn something from us” is the attitude that comes across.

Perhaps the truth, though, is that there’s still plenty we could learn from them.

The Purpose of Generosity

For many, the idea of generosity is a bit of of a novelty—something to do once in awhile to make yourself feel better, often out of guilt, and hopefully do a little good in the world. Maybe make a donation at Christmas to the local charity or lend a hand at the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving.

These things are fine; in fact, I wish more people would do them. And I make no claim to altruism. Giving money and energy to those who need it more than me makes me feel good about myself.

What I aspire to, though, is something different—a state where giving is less of a decision based on how I feel and more of one of simply giving where I see a need in the world. Less of an event and more of a way of life.

The purpose of generosity, in my opinion, is to give without expectation of return, to bring a better life to others without worrying too much how it will affect me. This is what I strive for.

The Goal of Doing Good

Every year, I give myself my own sort of annual review. I look at what went well, think about what could have gone better, and set a number of goals to work towards over the following year.

Normally, I try to make my goals measurable so I know very well if I’ve succeeded or not.  This year, though, I decided to break that rule. Above all other pursuits, I’ve decided to simply be more generous. There are a number of ways to define and measure a goal like that, but none of them came off as embodying the generosity that I want to develop for myself because, in the end, a goal is something you create for yourself—a thing that gives you a sense of accomplishment when you meet it. While that’s okay, it doesn’t jibe with what I’m after.

So, instead, I hold the intention to “be more generous” without any strings attached to it, and hope that it will slowly become an ingrained piece of me.

In practice, this could be giving a bigger tip than I normally would to my waiter at dinner, giving more time to a friend that needs someone to talk with, or just being generous with compliments when someone’s done something worth mentioning.

These little acts, while not always measurable, help me to remember my value. Like any habit, the more I do it, the stronger it gets.

Sometimes, You Lose Your Way

“I’ll be leaving a bag for donations in the dining room if there’s anything you’d like to leave behind,” our race organizer mentions. This is a tradition of the Big 5 Marathon. To say thank you to the many who make such an event possible—park rangers, guides, cooks, hospitality staff, many of whom enjoy running but can scarcely afford any proper clothes to do it in—runners can leave a piece of gear behind for those who need it.

I leave a jacket with a broken zipper and a pair of my old running shorts. Then, remembering I still have another marathon to run in Warsaw, I go back to the bag and take my shorts back.

“Hmm,” I thought to myself. “That’s not who I want to be.” By the time this thought comes, I’m on the bus out of camp and it’s too late to go back.

It’s times like these that I disappoint myself, but instead of dwell on it, I try to take it in and remember who I do want to be. Being conscious and deliberate at times like these ensures that I remember the next time.

If you’re trying to become a more generous person, you don’t have to get it right every time, but you do have to eventually tip the scale towards progress.

And don’t forget that generosity is not only for those less fortunate than you. Instead, practice giving unconditionally. Where there is no expectation, there is no risk.


Image by: Lawrence OP