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It's tough to be selfless when you get so much from giving.

No one gives without getting in return. It might be the pleasure of feeling smug, public accolades or tax write-offs, the assuagement of a secret guilt. But everyone who donates money to the United Way or volunteers at a soup kitchen walks away with something. When the act of giving is always diluted with some sort of satisfaction, is it ever worthy of the word generosity?

The answer, of course, is that generosity in its purest, selfless sense is more of an asymptotic goal to strive for, even if you never really attain it. Those remarkable people who turn off the TV and cook lentil soup for homeless human beings, or clothe the lepers, or whatever, always feel at least a pinch of self-satisfaction, and maybe even a nagging suspicion that they’re better than the rest of us. This, says Jim Donahue, the president of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, is something humanitarians must always be vigilant against. Unfortunately, the generous among us can’t do it on their own. They need our help. In essence, Donahue says, they need someone to remind them that their shit stinks just like the rest of us. “You have to have someone who will tell the truth about yourself, someone who will strip you of your own egoistic tendencies,” he says. “That’s the only way out of smugness, out of developing a celebrated ego.”

Perhaps the only way to truly inoculate yourself from smugness is to avoid good work that lets you see the value of your contribution. If you hand out cans of soup to the poor, you see their gratitude and take pleasure in it. But if you’re someone who makes it possible for others to give soup to the poor, while never doing it yourself, you accomplish all the altruism with none of the payoff. That’s the condition of Larry Sly, the executive director of the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano counties. He spends his days in tedious governance meetings, trying to figure out how to get people to donate money to his organization, or working out the logistics of distributing supplies to soup kitchens. He never gets to see the individual needy and know, in a visceral sense, that he’s helping them. All he gets to do is keep them alive. “I’m a high-powered business executive that raises money and administers the program,” says Sly, who started at the Food Bank as a truck driver. “From where I sit day to day, it’s committee meetings.”

Larry Sly is Mother Teresa without all the celebration of his work. Sure, he gets a certificate of appreciation from the Vallejo Chamber of Commerce once in a while. But most of the time, he’s just a guy in a suit. It helps keep the ego in check when strangers see you walk down the street and think, “Hey, isn’t that Ken Lay?” And so pure generosity is finally attained. -- Chris Thompson

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