Over the years of praying for my children and myself, I developed a list of characteristics that I pray for regularly. Sometimes I recall what event prompted an addition to the list; for most, I do not.
Recently, as I was praying my list for my family, which now includes grandchildren, it occurred to me that I’d never included being unselfish, which is certainly a desirable characteristic. I ran through my list again: kind, caring, thoughtful, tolerant, humble, honest, merciful, modest, gentle, generous, grateful, gracious, show good judgment, have common sense, be positive and pleasant, enjoy life, have wisdom and perspective. Nope. Unselfish was not there.
Generous was there, possibly part of training our children to give to others who are in need. That’s certainly akin to unselfish, but different. Generous seems to go with the idea that giving a certain amount is expected, but giving more than that is then considered generous.
Unselfish, however, includes putting the needs or desires of someone else above your own. It’s important to teach our children to be unselfish, especially with their siblings—to share food or toys or televisions. Then we expand to being unselfish with classmates and friends, which is likely to bring even more friends. Unselfishness is a child saying, “You take the first turn,” or “I’ll sit with you at lunch,” when neither is their first choice. Unselfish is more of an attitude of life, a willingness to be inconvenienced in order to be helpful to someone else.
Generous seems to include giving more time or money to someone than they expect, and includes actions more than attitude. Perhaps a certain amount of time or money is expected, but we give more. We stay longer to help clean up after a party, or we leave a three-dollar tip for a seven-dollar meal. Generosity goes beyond the baseline giving that’s expected and is likely to delight the recipient, whereas being unselfish is often expected. In fact, selfishness is probably condemned more than unselfishness is praised.
I also think unselfishness is more obvious than generosity. Generosity often includes gifts given privately, such as church contributions, other charitable giving, or cash passed along to a friend who is struggling financially. Those around us can see our unselfishness in our gracious actions.
I’m still mulling over the differences in unselfish and generous. I see them as closely affiliated, but still different—cousins, perhaps. Same family, but slightly different in form and perception. I’m certain I want to be both, and I want to encourage my grandchildren to be both. Do you have any ideas on the differences in unselfish and generous?