Why do we give? One reason was given by a recent, arresting headline in an article in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, “Our Basic Human Pleasures: Food, Sex and Giving.” Kristoff pointed out that recent studies of psychologists indicate that human beings give because they get pleasure from it. Anyone who has given for Haiti relief knows the truth of this. It would have hurt not to give.
I believe we also give because we have been blessed with a legacy of giving. Mark Hare asked in a recent column in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, “Is Rochester still the nation's kindest city?” He pointed to a study conducted nearly 20 years ago by a psychologist at Fresno State College in California who had students do tests such as pretend to drop something on the street, or ask for change, or pretend to need help crossing the street. The result was that Rochester was declared the nation’s kindest city. This duplicated the results of an earlier study done in the 1940s.
A 1994 article by John S. Tompkins in Readers’ Digest explained how Rochester came to be the kindest city. Hare summarizes the article:
With the opening of the Erie Canal in the early 19th century, Rochester became a boom town, a portal to the west, Tompkins wrote, "a boisterous place of taverns and transients." In 1829, thousands of people showed up to watch daredevil Sam Patch's fatal jump from what's now called High Falls.
Two days later, Josiah Bissell, a prominent businessman, stood during services at the Third Presbyterian Church and "warned that all 'who by their presence encouraged that soul to leap into eternity will be held accountable.'" Bissell got people's attention that day, and then arranged to bring the Rev. Charles G. Finney, a powerful and persuasive evangelist to Rochester for a revival that lasted a month and ended with hundreds of conversions.
"Having converted the affluent," Tompkins wrote, "Finney's final step was to get them to direct their energy and wealth into beneficial philanthropies." His inspiration led to a "church-building boom," the creation of a university, numerous organized charities and helping agencies and a public school system.
Even after all first-hand memories of Finney perished along with those early Rochesterians, his legacy of kindness remained, Tompkins wrote, and infused a civic culture that continued to manifest itself in the philanthropy of George Eastman (all the way to Tom Golisano) and in high levels of individual giving.
©2010 C. David Hess