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February 19, 2009

Guest speaker addresses generosity

Think beyond the numbers and ponder wealth in all its dimensions, Indiana University professor Richard Gunderman urged listeners in his talk, “Generosity: What’s at Stake.”

Last month’s lecture was the first in a Philanthropy Forum speaker series sponsored by the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs in conjunction with GSPIA’s Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership and GSPIA’s Innovation Clinic.

Gunderman is a professor of radiology, pediatrics, medical education, philosophy, liberal arts and philanthropy as well as vice chair of radiology at Indiana. His most recent book, “We Make a Life by What We Give,” was published in 2008.

“Our most precious resource in life is a wealth of wisdom,” Gunderman said. Noting that giving by writing checks is merely the transfer of wealth, he argued that generosity requires something more. “To genuinely do good and to enrich others’ lives requires wisdom,” he said. “Wisdom is found through conversation and, above all, conversations with the right partners. When we have these conversations we realize that a rich life — real riches in life — lies not in extracting as much as we can, but in sharing as much as we can.”

Touting the value of returning to the core texts in Western intellectual tradition, Gunderman recounted the Biblical parable of the rich fool:

Someone out of the crowd said, “Teacher, order my brother to divide the family inheritance.” He replied, “Man, who made me a divider between you?” Speaking to the people he went on: “Take care, protect yourself against all kinds of greed. A person’s life doesn’t consist in an abundance of possessions.” And he told them this parable: “The ground of a rich man produced a great crop. He said to himself, ‘What shall I do? My barn isn’t big enough for this harvest.’ Then he said, ‘Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. Then I’ll gather in all my grain and goods and I’ll say to myself, Self, you’ve done very well. You’ve got it made and now you can retire. Eat, drink and be merry.’”

Then God arrived and said, “Fool, what if tonight your life is demanded of you? And your barnful of goods: Who gets it?” This is what happens when you store up things for yourself but are not rich toward God.

Noting that the text raises serious questions, Gunderman asked that his listeners consider the parable not from a religious standpoint, “but as people in pursuit of understanding about the important claims that greed and generosity make on us as human beings. How do we respond to those callings?”

The teacher had been teaching about the higher things — not to worry about possessions, not to worry about tomorrow — when the man spoke up, Gunderman said. Rather than being an interruption, the request contributed to the teaching, he said.

Citing the Platonic tenet that lives are made up of lower and higher elements, he asked, “In our daily lives, how often does the lower intrude on the higher?

“This is a gut-check question for you and me as human beings,” Gunderman said. “One of the greatest human liabilities and one of the most important sources of human suffering is the intrusion of the lower on the higher, if we allow the lower to dominate and to tyrannize the higher.”

Stories help draw people into the questions, making them inquirers, Gunderman said. “Nobody can tell us what envy or greed or jealousy can amount to. We have to discover it for ourselves,” he said.

Pointing out that the teacher warned not about greed, but “all kinds of greed,” Gunderman referred to the 10th commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house, your neighbor’s wife, servant, ox or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”

One definition of coveting is wanting more than we need, Gunderman said. “Coveting is the desire for too much — wanting what someone else has because it’s theirs.

“The teacher said a person’s life doesn’t consist in the abundance of his possessions. That cuts against the grain of everything I see on my television set — that my happiness is contingent on me getting that 2009 model car. … I thought a 5,000-square-foot house was good enough; now because of my new neighbor, I see I need 6,500 square feet,” he said.

Wanting things isn’t necessarily bad, “but the tendency not to know what’s enough can be profoundly dangerous,” Gunderman said.

In the parable, the questioner is preoccupied by possessions, Gunderman said, noting paradoxically, “People who are preoccupied with the accumulation very often end up living lives of profound scarcity. … ‘Can’t buy me love?’ What if John Lennon was right about that?”

The questions, “How much is enough?” and “How much is too much?” are profound for our time, Gunderman said.

Drawing upon another traditional tale, Gunderman recounted the story of King Midas, who prayed that everything he touched would turn to gold — with disastrous results when his young daughter was transformed into a lifeless gold statue.

“This is a powerful human lesson,” Gunderman said. “Maybe we should spend less time praying to the heavens that our wishes be granted, and more time praying that we be protected from the realization of our own wishes.”

In the parable of the rich fool, elements of grace and good fortune are indicated in that the text says that the ground produced a good crop.

“Sometimes what we enjoy isn’t entirely our own doing,” Gunderman said. The rich fool has more than he needs and even more than he can store, Gunderman said. The fool’s response to the crucial question of greed and generosity is to build bigger barns so he can hoard the wealth and use it to accumulate more.

“This rich farmer doesn’t think of his neighbors, doesn’t give thanks for what he’s received,” Gunderman said. Noting that the character speaks only in the first person singular — I, I, I , me, me, me — Gunderman said the rich man reveals himself as “someone who’s living a monologue. … It’s a conversation with himself about himself. He has great wealth but no wisdom.

“If we take Aristotle at his word, without wisdom it’s impossible to be generous. Aristotle says you have to give to the right person at the right time in the right way for the right reason. It’s difficult to be generous. You have to understand the people involved. You have to understand the situation.”

Gunderman offered a less literal interpretation for the question, “What if tonight your life is demanded of you?”
“What if God isn’t requiring the man’s life as in ‘You’re going to forfeit?’ What if He’s requiring it as in ‘What life have you chosen for yourself?’”

The fool fails to see what life is about. “He has a shortsighted and superficial conception of what it means to be a human being,” Gunderman noted. “What’s a life made up of grains and barns and vaults and wealth?

“We need to see our lives in light of death — that everything we have is a kind of loan — that we are not necessarily so much the possessors but stewards of what we own,” he said. “What would it mean to be rich toward God; to be rich with respect to the higher things?” Gunderman asked. “What could we live for that would still shine even under the shadow of death? … Or does death make everything meaningless?”

The idea of equating who you are with what you have “might be a damning self-criticism with respect to these higher things,” Gunderman said. “Maybe there’s a sharp distinction to be drawn between being and having.”

Gunderman clarified that wealth is not inherently evil, nor is he advocating indifference toward earning and saving. “But I am suggesting that necessities can quickly become obsessions. … As the concern with possessing becomes stronger and stronger, you and I can become the possession of our possessions.”

Among the dangers, he said, “In building up our possessions and loading up with the things we have, we empty our lives of all that is real. We accumulate in one domain and impoverish ourselves in another.”

Gunderman said it would be callous to be indifferent to the fact that people are losing their jobs in this time of economic turmoil. “On the other hand, maybe this business of having — having a job, having a salary, having a house and car — maybe that’s ultimately less important than this question of being. Maybe we want our generosity to spring less from an imbalance in terms of what we have than an imbalance in terms of who we are.

“It doesn’t matter how much wealth we have; we can’t be generous unless we’re also wise and unless we understand what we’re giving, to whom we’re giving, when we’re giving and, above all, why we’re giving.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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