Generosity is one of those core values that differentiates great heroes from merely successful opportunists.
Television can, when done right, reveal a great deal about human character, virtues and the hero’s journey.You can get this in literature, of course, but most people don’t read great books anymore, at least not great fiction on a regular basis.
Television can fill this void, under the right conditions. It’s possible discover something about how to cultivate a generous spirit by simply observing the well-crafted interactions of fictional humans we’ve come to know over time and start to uncover where generosity is revealed and where it is not.
I’m a huge fan of Downton Abbey. We’re in the midst of the sixth and final season here in the states. In episode 4, Season 6 one of the storylines was built around Hillcroft, a college with the mission to educate young women who would not otherwise have the means to further their education. Rosamunde, sister of Robert Crawley, is a trustee for Hillcroft and has suggested that Lady Edith become a trustee, as well.
Mild spoiler alert if you care and haven’t watched this episode yet. It’s not (yet anyway) a major plot point, but it does cover a couple of scenes that might surprise you.
Generosity At Downtown Abbey
Rosamunde arranges a luncheon meeting at Downton to introduce Mr. and Mrs. Harding to the Grantham family. Mrs. Harding is working to raise funds for Hillcroft, where her husband serves as treasurer.
As it happens, Mrs. Harding is Gwen, who once worked for two years as a maid at Downton Abbey. Thanks to the generosity of Sybil (the deceased middle daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham), Gwen was able to leave service and get a job as a secretary, and eventually married a well-educated businessman.
The Crawley family present at the luncheon (with the exception of Tom Branson) did not recognize Gwen as a former house maid and she does not voluntarily reveal that part of her when Lady Mary says that Mrs. Harding “looks familiar.”
Mr. Barrow is acting butler in the absence of Mr. Carson who’s on his honeymoon with Ms. Hughes is quite envious of Gwen’s move up the social ladder and is set on achieving what he intends to be an embarrassing moment for her.
Barrow makes a comment that clearly reveals Mrs. Harding has something she had not yet revealed to the family and Mrs. Harding confesses that she once worked as a maid in the house and everyone at the table is intensely interested in hearing more about the story of how she moved from house maid to secretary, thanks to Sybil’s help and support.
I’ll never forget her — her kindness changed me life.
Gwen Harding about Sybil Crawley Branson
After the luncheon, Barrow is put in his place by Lord Grantham.
I don’t like to see such things, Barrow. I don’t care for a lack of generosity, do you understand me?
Robert Crawley, the 4th Earl of Grantham
Perhaps not all members of the English aristocracy practiced the same level of generosity and nobless oblige exemplified by most of the Crawley family (at least most of the time). But that French term encapsulates the role of generosity as part of the duty of the aristocracy to care for those who do not hold the same position in life.
A History of the Word: Generosity
I think it can be helpful to look at word etymology to get a deeper understanding of certain concepts because often times we begin to use words somewhat carelessly and with that we lose some of the nuance of meaning that can help us better understanding ourselves and make sense of our world and our journey through it.
In episode 6 of the Discover Grow Shinecast, I spoke with Kim Trumbo, founder and host of the Generosity Philosophy podcast. In the intro to that episode I give a quick run-through of how the meaning of the word “generosity” has evolved over the ages.
Without making this a full-on lesson in word origin, here’s a quick overview from the Wikipedia page on generosity.
If we go back to the earliest Latin, gener refers to kin or clan and has a root meaning in our Indo-European language of gen being to beget. Other words with the same root include: genesis, gentry, gender, genealogy, and genius.
In the earliest English usage of generous, the word referred to noble lineage, something from the aristocracy—the landed gentry, if you will. If you were of noble birth you had certain duties to fulfill, among those patronage and support of those who served your family and community.
But beginning during the 17th century, the usage of the word began to move away from something tied to family heritage toward a sense of being a quality that anyone could possess. Generosity became something more in the nature of a character trait associated with the ideas and virtues exemplified by the best of the aristocracy.
According to Wikipedia, the term generous was also used in the 17th century to “describe fertile land, abundance of food, vibrancy of colors, the strength of liquor, and the potency of medicine.”
Anyone Can Give
By the 18th century, generosity was being used in the context of a willingness to give freely to others, both money and possessions and, Wikipedia tells us, by the 19th century this became the common usage of generosity in English language.
So we see this shift from the time of the Renaissance and Enlightenment from the concept of generosity as a virtue expected as a result of one’s birth to the idea that generosity was something more, something available to everyone.
Generosity became a quality that anyone could possess who sought to act in accordance with the principles of a virtuous character.
Back to Downton Abbey
One of the reasons I love this series is that the characters have enough depth that we’ve come to understand something about their psyches and values, beyond what you usually see in a television series, even one that has an extended run. Each interaction between the characters reveals something about who they are as humans on their journey.
Thomas Barrow seems to have experienced something of an attitude shift near the end of episode 5, Season 6. I look forward to seeing how that development plays out as Downton Abbey comes to a close.
In The Real World
I’m glad most of us are (generally) no longer constrained by a class-based system, where birth largely determined a person’s chances for worldly success. [We still have problems, here in the US and around the world, but that’s a subject for another discussion.]
Today, if we fully embrace a spirit of generosity without the expectation for return and if receive the blessings that come through the generosity of others, we each have the chance to shine.
Be Generous and Shine