When people are described as ‘selfish’ there is usually an element of having a preference for receiving over giving. That is, they are seen as much more interested in taking than giving. In a very real sense, selfishness is the opposite of generosity. From a moral point of view, being regarded as generous would normally be perceived as better than being seen as selfish, giving as morally superior to taking.
Indeed, much of the appeal of certain jobs will be down to the opportunity to give – jobs in health care, social services, education and so on. Making a contribution to others can give us a sense of satisfaction, can boost our self-esteem and even provide a sense of spiritual fulfilment. It could be argued that many people’s lives are spiritually unfulfilled because their work does not give the opportunity to give, to contribute and to help – or perhaps the opportunities are there, but the culture, circumstances or leadership style stand in the way of capitalising on them.
Not much debate then: giving is good. But, is it that simple? Is that all there is to it? A firm ‘no’ is the short answer. The reason I say this is that there is a very real danger that focusing on our own giving can actually stand in the way of allowing others to give and to feel useful. For example, older people are often denied the opportunity to be helpful, and this can reinforce a sense of being useless, of having nothing to contribute. It is well captured in the phrase ‘killing with kindness’. Consider this (real) example from my experience that is sadly reminiscent of many such situations:
A community nurse visits an older woman in her own home. The older woman wants her guest to feel welcome, and so she says to the nurse: ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’ The nurse gets up and heads towards the kitchen, saying as she goes: ‘It’s all right love, I’ll do it. Where do you keep your teabags?’ The older woman sits fuming at the way her effort to be a welcoming hostess and to feel useful has been snatched from her. No doubt, the nurse had no intention of causing a problem. She thought that what she was doing was being helpful. It was not.
The technical term for this is ‘reciprocity’, the importance of giving as well as receiving, helping as well as being helped. Denying someone reciprocity is not helpful, even when people are doing it with good intentions. Many older people face this all the time; finding ways to feel useful becomes harder the older we get.
But it isn’t just older people that this applies to. I have come across managers who micro-manage their staff, telling them what to do at each step, rather than allowing them to work things out for themselves, grow and develop, become more confident and feel proud of the contribution they are making. There is not much pride, confidence or job satisfaction to be gained from simply doing what your boss tells you. Unfortunately, this style of management, what I call ‘backseat driving’, is common in cultures that have become risk averse. Instead of having a balanced attitude towards risk, many workplaces now have an unhealthy level of anxiety about risk. This is one of the main driving forces for ‘backseat driving’ behaviour. The irony is that ‘playing it safe’ about risk is a dangerous approach, as it means that having a balanced view becomes impossible, and that then introduces new risks because of the distortions involved.
And, of course, one of those risks is that reciprocity is denied, with all the problems that entails. So, while giving is certainly good, allowing others to give is also good, and we have to be careful that we are not unwittingly blocking this in our attempts to be kind or in our overly cautious approach to risk.