Zero sum games seem straightforward enough. There are 10 cherries in my bowl and if I give you five, I have only five left. That's simple addition and subtraction and it's what many people believe happens when they give something to someone else. I give you half my cherries and I have half left for me. If I look at giving this way I am counting only the cherries. I am not counting what else might happen. When people give and believe the only result they can experience is having five fewer cherries than they started with, they engage in zero sum giving. I have been the recipient of zero sum giving and that's not generosity.
Zero sum giving creates debts. If giving you something means I expect to have a loss from that giving, then I begin to look for the ways in which I can make up my losses, get back that which I gave away - maybe with interest. I gave you something. You owe me something. I give you a birthday present. You owe me a birthday present. I take you to lunch. You owe me a lunch.
This kind of giving does not only have to be about things. It's not just the number of cherries we each have. It's also about our time and energy. Zero sum giving can take the form of giving services. I took care of you when you were sick. Now you owe me. Now you have to pay me back somehow. Maybe the debt is subtle. Maybe it's not that you will have to take care of me when I am sick. Maybe I expect that you will behave in a certain way when I take care of you - that you will pay me back by being cheerful or getting better. In one way or another I am owed something for the "gift" I gave.
Zero sum giving is like a kind of one-party negotiation. I make a "bargain" with you but I don't tell you about it. I give you something and create an expectation. That's the debt. I expect that you will hold your end up of the "bargain" I made with you. That kind of unspoken negotiation, particularly when dealing with a sick or injured person, can be destructive and very confusing for the person being helped. Trying to heal takes a huge amount of time and energy and attention. Sick and injured people need our care, not our expectations.
So how is generosity different? Generosity according to Wikipedia, "is the habit of giving freely without expecting anything in return." That sounds reasonable. No debts made. But there's a lot more to it than that. This standard definition of generosity leaves out the way generosity changes all involved. Generosity is not just a zero sum giving game coupled with a conscious decision not to create debts. A noble idea but easier said than done.
Generosity, when practiced regularly, creates abundance, not debts. There are no losses. Everybody winds up with more. This happens because generosity changes the giver as much as or more than the person receiving the gift. If I give something to you and don't count the cherries, I change the way I experience the world. When I give in this way, my heart opens. When my heart opens, my mind opens. I begin to see the world as much more than a narrow place.
When I am counting my ten cherries, my mind is focused on my own bowl, not the possibilities around me. All I see is the finite number of cherries in the bowl in front of me. I don't see the tree from which the cherries come, much less the orchard of cherry trees. I never realize that there are infinitely more cherries out there than I can count. As my heart and mind open and I live with generosity, giving without being preoccupied with what I am losing or gaining, the generosity grows. As the generosity grows, without seeking it, I begin to be included in the abundance that results. The abundance increases for everyone, sometimes in totally unexpected forms.
When I begin to open my heart, the infinity of possibilities around me becomes visible - maybe for the first time. That's a whole lot more powerful than a zero sum game.