The independent news organization of Duke University

Rethinking generosity

What’s your definition of generosity? When they hear the word generosity, many think of giving—whether that be giving money, time, or possessions. But do you ever consider generosity giving the benefit of the doubt?


Last week was Honor Council’s big event week: Integrity Week. Suzanne Shanahan, Director of the Kenan Institute of Ethics, spoke in the first event of the week. She discussed her life experiences, how she approaches each day, and how she views generosity. 

Her view on generosity is something that has stuck with me since. It wasn’t geared towards the large scale, philanthropic action but instead much more focused on typical day-to-day interactions and reevaluating your immediate thoughts in response to something frustrating. Try to see it from another person’s perspective, give them the benefit of the doubt, and incorporate humor into your thought process. When someone is really rude or something goes wrong, many people get irritated and ask, “Why me? Why’s this happening?” This makes sense considering how stressed and sleep deprived many Duke students are on a daily basis. But throughout the week that followed Dr. Shanahan’s talk, I caught myself each time I became frustrated during my hectic days.


It can be easier to differentiate the generous thing to do in situations where someone is directly asking for a favor. But as you go through your day and process the world around you, thoughts of being generous don’t necessarily come to mind. You have to practice a lot. It’s about targeting those unconscious, automatic assumptions and predictions you make. People often fall into the trap of attributing others’ actions to disposition rather than situation, while understanding their actions and experiences in terms of situational factors. This is the favor we do for ourselves and not for others. 

For example, if you are riding on the C1 to West Campus and the person standing next to you bumps into you, your immediate thought will likely be that they are rude. You will start to wonder why you had to be the one that they pushed and you may start to get frustrated. This kind of negative thought process is likely to send you down a path that will ultimately affect your behavior and may  push you to release your frustration elsewhere, starting a very negative cycle. But if you think about this situation as if you were the person that bumped into another, you are inclined to justify a possibly rude action by telling yourself that the bus hit a pothole or suddenly slowed down and that it really wasn’t your fault. This is the kind of thinking that you have to employ in situations like this. You have to interrupt those thoughts that blame a person’s disposition, and instead, give them the benefit of the doubt.


I have tried my best to practice this thought-correction process more often in smaller instances in which I had previously not considered it applicable. There have been times in which I have been in a rush somewhere and forgotten to do it. But overall, I have found that I feel a bit better every day. This new way to define generosity sparked reflection on my own personal definition of what it means to be generous. I have always defined it as doing something for someone else despite inconvenience because you know it will really help them in some way. I thought about generosity in very external terms, characterized by doing things for others. But this emphasis on internal generosity and focusing on your reaction to others has really made me think. I’m so grateful to have heard Suzanne Shanahan speak. It was a great way to start the week and it left me thinking a little differently, expanding my definition of generosity, and doing my best to embrace it. So next time you find yourself in a rush to class be mindful of what thoughts you have, gives others the benefit of the doubt, and try to approach whatever comes your way with humor.  

This week’s column was written by Julia Marshall, T’21.


Share and discuss “Rethinking generosity” on social media.