Thoughts on generosity and greed in prison

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Thoughts on generosity and greed in prison


One of the prisoners who writes in told me about a guy in his “dorm” who asked for food and supplies, promising to repay. Who never repaid and started bad mouthing him. Eventually the guards put this guy in another dorm. This is what I wrote:

Dear Evan,

I got your letter about the swindler. Now that he is out of the picture, I think we can discuss people like him. In jail and out of it, there are takers and givers. You are obviously a giver, so let me give you my opinions.  I am a giver, too.

There is an old Jewish saying: “To give is a good thing. To give and the recipient does not know who you are, is a better thing. To give and not know who receives is the best; for we should not give in expectation of gratitude or repayment, but only out of generosity.”

I often find myself waiting for and expecting thanks for what I give. That is a mistake. Expectations lead to disappointments, which lead to resentments. I do not loan anymore. I give. If I get a repayment, I consider it a gift, and I am grateful for receiving it. If I don’t, well, it was a GIFT. If I give out of my excess, I do not feel the gift. If I give to the point where I feel the lack, I have truly given. If I give it all, and have nothing myself, then I can sympathize with the person I am giving to.

If you had given the swindler in your “dorm” everything you had, it still would not be enough for him. He would still have been on the ‘take, take, take’ train. But you would have been released from the cycle. It would have freed you. I met a guy named Brian who did that. What amazed him was that the whole “dorm” knew what he had done. And he did not suffer. Every time he came into his cubicle, there was a gift for him to eat. He never lacked for toilet paper from home or soap. (The swindler didn’t owe him anything, so he wasn’t swindling. He had given that as a gift to a psychologically needy person.) And he was rewarded by knowing that there was good and generosity even in the purgatory he was in.

Some other time, I would like to know if you have really looked at your own motives for being too nice. What do we givers get out of faulty giving? What do we seek by that behavior?

Best wishes, and like the bumper sticker says, “Practice random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty”

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