The Genius of Generosity

December 18, 2010

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There’s magic in nativity — mundane and marvelous magic. It’s no wonder our most popular holiday is centered upon such an event. The promise implicit in nativity can transform even the hardest heart. Charles Dickens understood this and invented Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens gave the miserable old miser a second life and us a good story.

Before Dickens were the gospel writers; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John crafted tales that elevated the promise of human birth to a divine level. Even if you don’t believe their stories literally, the underlying myth they’re built upon is a powerful one. Most of us can appreciate the potentiality of a blank slate or new beginning. Everyone was once white as the driven snow.

Snow Mountain
The place is cool and distant
The air is clear of error
The vista wide and brimming
Everything is still
Undone

It’s hard to believe that the depth and simplicity of the Christmas nativity story has devolved into our commercial circus. But every divine story ultimately gets a human stamp. Or is it the other way around — we give every human story a divine aspect? In story-telling terms, it makes you wonder which came first, the chicken or the egg; the human or the divine.

One thing’s sure, it’s hard to make the connection between divine birth and Wii commercials. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Wii commercials, along with the deluge of hype of every product that flows from top-down manufactured want — want that fuels an up-to-date Christmas — makes the Wise Men and their paltry gifts seem simple and piddling. 

At its core the mythology of the Christmas story is about generosity — in this case, divine generosity: god gives his son to save mankind from (essentially) itself. If anyone doesn’t believe we need a divine hand, just open today’s paper or take an online run through the news — and reading a little history wouldn’t hurt either. But whether our recognition of the need to be saved from our tendency to self-destruct is divine insight or a simple human “duh” moment, the important thing to take from the story is that generosity is its point: it takes the generosity of sacrifice to make the world a better place. But sacrifice is not an idea that appeals to modern consumers or is in sync with the psychology of mass marketing, or which is the foundation of a consumer-driven world economy. Consumer-driven-economy is not about positive sacrifice.

Nevertheless, selling the idea of Christmas generosity is how business genius has wrenched the story of divine and human generosity into its present grotesque shape. The mythology — or fact — of Christmas (depending upon your mindset) is buried under mountains of manufactured goods which makes, say, Wal-Mart owners richer and the rest of us poorer  — not only in a monetary sense, but also in a spiritual sense.  It’s gotten to the point where even a mythological god would be sighing, “They’re just not getting it.”

What we, our government and business community have been doing in contorting the deep mythology of the Christmas story is summed up in a brilliant line from Bob Dylan’s “Summer Days.”  Although he’s referring to a politician, the line is apt for us all. Dylan sings: “He been suckin’ the blood out of the genius of generosity . . . ”

The “genius of generosity” is the story of Christmas in a nutshell, with “love and sacrifice” being its background hallelujah chorus. But the kind of generosity at the core of the Christmas story has little to do with buying-blitzes at malls. It has more to do with the background hallelujah chorus . . .the love and sacrifice part, the seeing-what-your-community-needs- and-giving-accordingly part, the what-can-I-do-now-to-help-get-us-through-this-mess-we’ve-made-of-the-world part and to evaluate and act without calculation.

William Wordsworth wrote, “Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore of nicely-calculated less or more.”

In any case, the inspiration we should seek in the Christmas story is not to suck the blood out of the genius of generosity, but to give it a transfusion. The Red Cross knows something about this, and many other organizations do as well. Give ‘em a call.

Speaking of second chances, fresh starts and blank slates; turn over a new leaf. Call it generosity-of-time-and-spirit. Make it a New Year’s resolution. Let it be local, but with a global view.

Even a measly human generosity, if it considers the world, can be, after all, almost divine . . .and truly Christmasy.

for the Shelburne Falls Independent
Dec 21, 2010

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