Flickr: Wonderlane

This is Goethe: “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

Health and happiness are kindled by gratitude, and gratitude expresses itself as generosity. As we give generously of our time, work and vision, we create a microcosm of the world around us that is accepting and kind. We give ourselves and the people around us the space and support to express their ideas and visions. Generosity grows community and, in turn, these communities provide us with the structure and connections to be resilient and resourced when we need it most. Face it. Wherever you are—you need other people. We need each other.

As aid workers, we have committed to being of service to the world. Our work is based on the alleviation of suffering—a career choice that is, at its source, based on generosity. Many of us facilitate a flow of resources in our projects that are a direct expression of donor generosity, especially those of us working at charities or relief organizations. But the generosity I’m writing about goes deeper than that to influence our daily interactions—how we respond to a request we’ve answered before, how we greet the people we work next to, or whether we extend complements to the people around us.

When we are open and responsive to the people around us, we encourage openness and generosity to take root in our lives. The more we give our presence, the more grounded and resourced we become. You are generous when you take your new colleagues out and introduce them to your friends. You are generous when you tell a colleague who deserves it that they’re doing a good job. The willingness to engage with people and to offer them your presence and your full attention is a gift, and it is on these gifts that we and our communities thrive.

When I practice generosity, my world expands and my fear of scarcity diminishes. It’s a powerful practice, one that takes emotional work and an ability to set good boundaries.

It may not always be easy or comfortable, but I’m committed to the practice of generosity in my work and my life, and I know that this practice makes my horizons wider, my community larger and my life more wonderful. I write Expat Backup to share my process with others of similar mind.

Let’s remember that generosity does not mean giving away what you need yourself, ignoring your needs to focus on the needs of others, or intentionally putting yourself in situations where you feel emotionally drained or physically exhausted. Choosing a life of service in challenging environments does not make us martyrs, mothers or missionaries—those are separate, personal choices. I firmly believe that we do not need to sacrifice our health or happiness to make the world better. In fact, when we are unhealthy or unhappy, our ability to do the work suffers.

It is when we thrive that we are the most effective agents of change. I’m here to tell you: generosity is a global currency. I invite you to try it.

Want to tell me about you own thoughts about working as an expat in challenging environments? Send me an email (, then sign up to get Expat Backup delivered straight to your Inbox.

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