Recently a San Diego-based colleague and friend invited me to sit at her table for the local celebration of National Philanthropy Day. I found myself wavering about whether or not to accept the invitation* because I assumed she had invited me as a dialogue and leadership development practitioner, a role I am downsizing, and not as a writer, a role that still feels baggy around me, that I am still exploring, and that didn’t seem terribly relevant to the purposes of the event. A few days after the invitation, I had the opportunity to discuss my professional-identity-related ambivalence with her, and, in addition to being slightly puzzled by the intensity of the question (a puzzlement I heard from others as well, mostly in the form of “who cares”), she told me she’d invited me as a “philanthropist” to celebrate what I and others contribute, to our region and world, in whatever ways we do – with money, volunteer activities, dialogue work, writing. I was delighted by the large ontological frame her use of the epithet “philanthropist” constructed for my different professional identities, indeed, for all my identities as a social being.
Mentioning this delight to another (not-San Diego-based; indeed fabulously global) friend, I initiated a prolonged argument on the meaning of philanthropy. My easy adoption of philanthropy as an umbrella that would encompass my various professional and personal identities was vigorously rejected on the grounds that philanthropy has a strictly technical meaning that separates it from its roots in the massive sloshing phenomenon of human-love-for-human, a vast not-misanthropy that exists beyond an imaginary zero line. I didn’t waver. Nor did she. We ran out of time, so the discussion ended.
Eventually, somewhat gleefully, since my philanthropy is larger, at least in conception, than her philanthropy, once my cortisol level dropped, I let it go.
So now I return, non-polemically, happily higher on oxytocin than on cortisol, to imagining writing as philanthropy. Does it work even if my writing is not intentionally philanthropic, as it often isn’t? A sentence pops into my immediate response, drawn from Ben Jeffrey’s review of Michel Houllebecq’s dispiriting novels “… if it feels true, it will be better writing than something that only feels like it ought to be true—literature isn’t essentially normative.” There’s a piece of my answer in there. But writing as philanthropy calls for a whole blog post of its own, so more on that another time.
* It turned out I wasn’t free at that time.