Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose

Article excerpt

The Paradox of Generosity: Giving We Receive, Grasping We Lose BY CHRISTIAN SMITH AND HILARY DAVIDSON OXFORD, 280 PAGES, $29.95

Sociologists Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson have co-written a book with what they themselves admit is an unremarkable conclusion: Generosity is paradoxical. As the subtitle states, "Giving we receive, grasping we lose." Why then did they write it?

Perhaps because one of the most useful functions of sociology is to find facts that remind us of what should never have been forgotten, that make it more difficult to ignore the obvious. While "many wise observers of human life have taught versions" of this same paradox, the authors tell us, "many people today seem not much shaped by the sayings of wise teachers from thousands of years ago." For this reason, they decided it might "help to add to this traditional wisdom some empirical findings from social-scientific research."

At an analytical level, the book seeks to contribute to scholarly social-science literature on altruism, pro-social behavior, charitable giving, volunteering, morality, positive psychology, and the like. But on a more human level, the authors hope that it will present a "deeply personal" challenge to its readers by confronting them with what will be, perhaps, a startling and complex existential question: "How generously or ungenerously will each of us live our own lives, why will we choose to do so, and with what effects on ourselves and those around us?"

On the first goal, the book succeeds remarkably well. Smith and Davidson are clearly top-notch sociologists, and the chapters are chockfull of case studies, pie charts, and bar graphs. …

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