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Articles

The Giving Paradox

Published in Underthrow Series .

IF WE WANT TO FIND JOY IN GIVING TO OTHERS, THEN [THERE ARE] A FEW KEY INGREDIENTS THAT REALLY SEEM TO MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN TURNING GOOD DEEDS INTO GOOD FEELINGS. THE FIRST ONE IS CONNECTION. WE’RE MORE LIKELY TO EXPERIENCE JOY FROM HELPING OTHERS IF WE REALLY FEEL CONNECTED WITH THE PEOPLE OR THE CAUSE THAT WE’RE HELPING. THE SECOND ONE IS IMPACT. IF WE CAN SEE THE DIFFERENCE THAT OUR GOOD DEEDS ARE MAKING, THAT SEEMS TO REALLY UNLOCK THE EMOTIONAL BENEFITS OF GENEROSITY. AND FINALLY, THERE’S CHOICE. THE QUICKEST WAY TO STRIP THE JOY OF GIVING AWAY … IS TO MAKE PEOPLE FEEL LIKE THEY’VE BEEN FORCED TO GIVE.

Happiness researcher, Elizabeth Dunn


Oseola McCarty spent most of her life taking in laundry and ironing to eke out a living in small-town Mississippi. She scraped, saved, and lived austerely, starting as a teenager.

In her words, the following was a typical day:

I would go outside and start a fire under my washpot. Then I would soak, wash, and boil a bundle of clothes. Then I would rub ’em, wrench ’em, rub ’em again, starch ’em, and hang ’em on the line. After I had all of the clean clothes on the line, I would start on the next batch. I’d wash all day, and in the evenin’ I’d iron until 11:00. I loved the work. The bright fire. Wrenching the wet, clean cloth. White shirts shinin’ on the line.

That is, until 1995.

That was the year McCarty gave the bulk of her life savings, $150,000, to Southern Mississippi University. Since she could remember, she had always wanted to be a nurse. Everything McCarty saved cleaning and pressing the clothes of wealthier folk went into a scholarship fund. She wanted young women to be able to study nursing, even if they didn’t have the means.

“Contributions from more than 600 donors have added some $330,000 to the original scholarship fund of $150,000,” wrote essayist Rick Bragg in The New York Times. “After hearing of Miss McCarty’s gift, Ted Turner, a multibillionaire, gave away a billion dollars.”

Note that when McCarty donated, she didn’t give it to any ol’ organization. She gave based on what she knew, felt connected to, and what held meaning for her.

She also donated in a way that would help young women pull themselves up, rather than offering a handout that could weigh a person down in her development. If she had just wanted to give her money away, she could have divided it into envelopes and stuffed it into the mailboxes of poor people along some street in Hattiesburg.

Her ethic said otherwise.

I knew there were people who didn’t have to work as hard as I did, but it didn’t make me feel sad. I loved to work, and when you love to do anything, those things don’t bother you. . . . Sometimes I worked straight through two or three days. I had goals I was working toward.

Still, one who works as hard as Oseola McCarty will likely give wisely and have certain expectations. In McCarty’s mind, a gift to young women in her community would need to be an investment in personal growth. At one time, we might have called that effective altruism. Today, most of us have forgotten how to give well, even though too many toss that phrase about.

McCarty had not only left a legacy; she had transmitted opportunities to young women in the future. But what did her gift mean?

Maybe it meant she would die having lived a life of meaning. Maybe it meant leaving some trace of herself. We know it had something to do with the dignity of work, of which her scholarship has become a symbol. Some people think a life of meaning is about posterity—leaving the world better than you found it. Still others think it’s a means of being happy.

Oseola McCarty certainly did.


BACK IN THE DAY, IN OUR EVOLUTIONARY PAST, WE WERE LIVING IN RELATIVELY SMALL GROUPS WHERE EVERYONE WOULD HAVE KNOWN EACH OTHER. IT WOULD HAVE BEEN SO VASTLY FAR REMOVED FROM ME ENTERING MY CREDIT CARD INTO A WEBSITE TO HELP SOMEBODY ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORLD. SO THERE IS A BIT OF A DISCONNECT BETWEEN SOME OF THE GIVING OPPORTUNITIES THAT WE FACE TODAY AND THE KINDS OF HELPING BEHAVIORS THAT HUMAN BEINGS EVOLVED TO ENJOY.

Elizabeth Dunn


Her gift was also about strengthening her community. She wanted young women, just like the one who had taken in ironing all those years ago, to treat sick people, which is a high calling. She wanted to be a force multiplier for the people around her.

Connection.

Impact.

Choice.

Maybe there’s a little bit of that Oseola McCarty ethic left down in Mississippi. But all over America, it’s disappearing. Communities are fading. A simulacrum has replaced compassion—the hollow activism of political moralists.

Max Borders is a senior advisor to The Advocates. Read more of his writing at Underthrow.


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