Generosity: The will to give

So much has been written about the Maginhawa Community Pantry, an austere project whose charisma has, within one week, inspired countless replications all over the country. One more brief note about it may not shed further light on its magic. But it may, hopefully, resolve some of the vague uneasiness we feel during this pandemic.

The virtue that the community pantry clearly exemplifies is generosity. This is different from love. We don’t call the attention that a parent selflessly showers upon her child the act of a generous person. True generosity arises from reason, not from instinct or feeling. This is cogently summed up in the cardboard note Ana Patricia Non posted on her pantry: “Give what you can, take what you need.”

Its precondition is the freedom to act according to one’s will — in the words of the French philosopher André Comte-Sponville [“A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues”]: “To do unto our neighbor as we would unto our loved ones, and unto strangers as we would unto ourselves.” This maxim, he hastens to add, “prescribes not feelings or emotions, which are not transferable, but actions, which are.”

It is worth stressing that generosity is not an instinct, but an act of will. Indeed, it often clashes with the instinct of personal survival or self-preservation. In a time of fear, uncertainty, and vulnerability—such as we find ourselves in—our default response is to take control of whatever we can to ensure our and our loved ones’ survival.

Thus, at the first sign of scarcity, many rush to the supermarkets, emptying shelves of toilet paper, noodles, and canned goods. Later, in quiet shame, some may pause in horror to survey the stockpile they have accumulated, prompting them to share part of these with relatives, close friends, and the ordinary people who make their middle-class lives bearable.

But, that is not the generosity we encounter in the community pantry, whose rationality lies precisely in its purported anonymity and selflessness. The Maginhawa pantry appears to work well where earlier initiatives have not because it has served primarily as a simple vehicle for faceless giving and discreet receiving of the most basic necessities. As such, it offers no space for the self-promotion and obligatory acknowledgments that usually accompany the mass distribution of emergency assistance.

Strangely enough, there are those who disagree with these simple acts of generosity on the ground that feeding the citizenry in times of crisis is properly the duty of government. Accordingly, they prefer to exert public pressure upon those in power to shame them into assuming their responsibilities.

There is logic in this, certainly. But, this is what distinguishes the pursuit of justice from the practice of generosity. The act of giving is entirely up to us. It is an expression of our freedom. No one obliges us; it is purely an act of will. It proceeds from reason, not from guilt, nor even from pity.

When it comes to people we love, we don’t hesitate to give, Sponville writes. But “generosity invites us to give in the absence of love to the very people we do not love, and to give them more the more they need it, or the better equipped we are to help them.”

Is this sustainable? I think what may pose a threat to the continuity of the community pantry is not the alleged communist link that the paranoid witch-hunters of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict have tried to pin on the Maginhawa Street initiative. Rather, its sustainability may depend in large measure on the desire and willingness of the public to give for as long as they think there is an urgent need to give.

Two things may test the tenacity of this community-driven generosity.

First, the behavior of those who give to and run the pantries. On one hand, the media attention that has been generated around the concept has undoubtedly sparked a movement to replicate it elsewhere. But, the same media interest could, on the other, incite its politicization by offering a convenient platform from which all kinds of ambitions could be projected. This is bound to discourage earnest donors and attract only the cynical. I have always believed that the community pantry’s gift draws its grace from the anonymity of the giver.

Second, the behavior of those who receive. There is an ethic of giving and an ethic of taking, whose enforcement is purely voluntary. Both ethics are embedded in a culture of respect for the Other. The giver must expect nothing in return. The receiver must wait for his or her turn, and take only what he or she needs. The gift humanizes the giver as well as the receiver.

Over the years, Filipinos have learned to fall in line and wait for their turn. But, events like the jostling and line-cutting that marred the distribution of goods at one community pantry the other day tell us that we are not yet quite there. In traditional society, courtesy was all it took to maintain order. People gave way to the elderly almost by instinct. In the transition to modernity, however, old norms lose their grip on people while the new ones have yet to take root. The discipline of the queue remains a challenge for many of our people.

True generosity does not surrender to anger or contempt or indifference when some individuals, out of a misplaced sense of urgency, defy the unspoken norms of courtesy and decency. This virtue has many names, says Sponville, but, above all, when “accompanied by gentleness, it is called kindness.”