In 1997, the New York Times reported that Edith and Harry Everett had pledged three million dollars toward the six million dollar cost of renovating New York’s Central Park Zoo. In exchange, the zoo was to be named the “Everett Children’s Zoo”. But, said the Times, the couple decided to withdraw their pledge and give the money elsewhere. The reason, they explained, was that the proposed plaque at the zoo entrance, on which their names would be emblazoned, was too small. [Source, The Wall Street Journal, Dec. 31, 2004]
When I first read about the Everett’s I was incensed. How could they, I thought! Can you imagine such an attitude of self-righteousness? Neither can I . . . except that I must be careful casting stones, for I often have the same attitude when I offer up good deeds, that is expecting something in exchange in acknowledgement of my generosity. Just recently in fact I shared with a clergy friend of mine about my struggles to forgive someone by whom I felt I had been wronged (forgiving being a form of “giving” as the root word suggests). What bugs me, I explained, is that I want something in return – an apology, or at least an acknowledgement of my kindness. My clergy friend, after listening for a while, finally spoke up. “Dan,” he said, “forgiveness is never fair.”
I think what he meant is that unlike business transactions where something of value is exchanged for something considered to be of equal value, benevolence offers something of value with no expectation of anything in return. In other words it is not a zero sum transaction as in a business exchange. But there is one other important factor. True benevolence requires the giver to relinquish any pride in the giving, which makes it seem doubly unfair, doesn’t it?
That, unfortunately, was the Everett’s failure in withdrawing their pledge, as well as mine in my unwillingness to forgive, the result being that we both turned an “unfair” transaction into one that is a total loss for all concerned, the children of New York being denied a better zoo, and my transgressor and I a potentially restored relationship. Is that fair? Of course not! In my own case at least I pray I will change that.