The problem of institutionalizing generosity

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Seventeen months in the nation of Denmark made me an odd kind of conservative.

A good friend, Bryce Johnston, is fond of saying, “I served a girl’s mission.” (We’ll see if he ever reads these columns.) He refers to the fact that, for just a few years in the early and mid-eighties, LDS men served missions for 18 months just as do women missionaries. Of course I extended to a very manly nineteen months, the first two of which were spent in the Missionary Training Center in Provo.

The MTC instructors—one of whom is now, coincidentally, my neighbor in Lyman—sought to help us understand and appreciate much of the culture as well as the language. They frequently pointed out the generosity of the Danes, who have historically taken in relatively large numbers of refugees from war- and poverty-torn nations. As a result they paid very high income and use taxes. Simon Spies, then recognized as the wealthiest man in the nation, reportedly paid 95% of his income in taxes each year.

As I walked and biked around the beautiful, emerald-green hills of Denmark I was interested to see how few had large homes. A native of eastern Idaho I was not accustomed to see so many apartment building, even in relatively small towns. But it was nice in that it kept the villages small and offered more open land between homes.

I immediately fell in love with Denmark and Europe in general.

As I knocked on doors and spoke with hundreds of Danes I was impressed to hear them explain their willingness to pay such high taxes. They explained that it was well worth the investment of their income to assure that all had free healthcare and that there were no poor. (Danish health care was held up as a model by President Clinton as he sought to make over U.S. health systems, and in both 1983 and ’84 the papers proudly declared that Denmark boasted the highest standard of living in the world.)

It would seem the Danes had generously found the secret to creating a happy world. They gave generously of their income and distributed it to those in need.

But I slowly came to see an underbelly I had not expected.

I was disappointed to learn that very few of the immigrants with whom I spoke had any Danish friends or associates. Several had noted that they felt very unwelcome in the nation despite the Danish tendency to open their borders and wallets. Danes with whom I spoke observed that they have given cash and a place to live so their “guests” had nothing about which to complain.

Fair enough, I thought.

But then I also observed how few people in general interacted at all with their neighbors, irrespective of origin. I recall one woman with whom I spoke who lived seventeen years in her apartment and reported never once having spoken with her neighbor—not even exchanging greetings—despite their front doors being only eight feet apart. Seventeen years!

I also observed the high rates of depression, mental illness and suicide in the country. Approximately 20% of the population was reportedly on permanent mental disability.

Of course this is all anecdotal. I know of Danes who warmly interact with their neighbors and take genuine interest in others. I am still impressed with the fact that so many Danes and other Europeans willingly pay high taxes in order to support those who have less.

But it is also worth noting that it is not uncommon for people to close their homes and their hearts to others as they open their wallets. Research has long demonstrated that fiscal conservatives (politically speaking) tend to give much more to charity—both time and money—than do those who vote for giving (and taking) more through taxation.

It would seem that institutionalizing generosity—relying upon institutions or official policy to give to others—contributes to less personal giving and connection.

One might argue, “But the poor have what they need, and that is all that matters.” Hmmm, maybe not.

Charity, at least as defined scripturally and traditionally, changes the internal condition of both the giver and the receiver. Research has also long demonstrated the connection between reaching out to those in need and improved mental and social health.

It would seem, then, that giving generously of ourselves may perhaps do even more for the giver than for the receiver—all the while allowing the receiver opportunities s/he would not otherwise have.

But is it enough to write a check or vote to have it forcibly removed from my paycheck? I don’t think so.

We can just as easily get caught up in this problem via our own prevailing (LDS) culture. Each month we are asked to fast and give generously to the Church on behalf of those in need. Young men come around to most doors each “fast Sunday” and provide us the opportunity to make confidential donations. The giver puts any amount—or none—into the envelope and sends it off for the bishop to record. That is a good and effective system on several levels.

But how well do we reach out to express interest in our neighbors and passersby? Do we smile and greet those around us, especially those who look or sound differently from us? How about Spanish speakers or those darned college students?

Like those Danes with whom I had spoken it can be easy to give anonymously (which we should!) while forgetting to reach out personally. In the end, the genuine personal connection will pay richly and help us all to be healthier and happier people.


About the Author:

Michael Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, a Marriage and Family Therapist with over 25 years' experience. A specialist in quickly improving important relationships, he is also an expert in helping clients to quickly overcome problems with anxious, depressed or irritable moods.

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