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Imagine for a minute that someone stuck a lottery ticket in your Christmas stocking and you won. You won big: $30 million–after taxes.

And you decide to give it all away.

“I must be nuts,” you think. “No one in their right mind would do that.”

Actually, there are perfectly sane people who’ve done the equivalent. One of my

Ancient Roman bust of Herodes Atticus, from hi...

Ancient Roman bust of Herodes Atticus, from his villa at Kephissia. mid 2nd c. CE. Inv. no. 4810. National Archaeological Museum in Athens, Room 32. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

favorites is a guy named Percy Ross. The son of an immigrant junk dealer, Ross grew up to be an entrepreneur who, after a couple of business failures, sold one of his successful ventures for $8 million.

After dividing that money up four ways–a share for him, one for his wife, and one each for his two sons–Ross invested his. And his share grew into a vast fortune that he decided he would give away to people who really, truly needed it.

Ross is in his 80s now, and he’s given away that entire fortune. He started in 1977 by giving $50,000 to help 50 Vietnamese refugees make a new home in America. Then he threw a huge party for 1,050 poor children of Minneapolis, Minnesota. He gave each a bicycle–something he wanted as a child but his family could not afford. After the thrill of that Christmas party, he started a newspaper column called “Thanks a Million.” Readers would write in and ask for money. If they asked the right way, Ross would send it.

Ross doesn’t reveal how much he actually gave away over the years, but many estimate it to be in the $30-million range.

“I never tell anybody,” he says. “It’s not a question of how much one gives. Am I a better person if I gave away $2 million than if I gave $1 million?”

And that’s not all. “If I had twice as much,” he says, “I still would have given it all away. For every person I helped, there were 400 to 500 I couldn’t help.”

Percy Ross is the kind of person a lot of us would like to be.

I’ve got something interesting to tell you: No matter how bad the world seems at times, the human race has done a pretty good job of creating a Percy Ross-style system of values.

It’s what Connecticut College president Claire Gaudiani calls “the wisdom tradition.” By that, she means that human beings have long recognized the value and importance of generosity–even generosity toward those who are from different backgrounds than we are.

“I suspect that we, as a species, are hardwired to be generous–that this is a survival mechanism of our species,” she says.

Gaudiani is writing a book on the topic. In her research, she has found countless stories from over the ages that reveal the role compassion and charity play in the human tradition. What she has learned is that compassion and charity bind us together; they create a family out of strangers, a bond that sustains the race.

One of the most famous is the story of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan comes across a man who has been robbed and beaten, and even though the man’s religion and ethnicity are different than his–major barriers, even today–the Good Samaritan reaches out to help that man because he recognizes what they have in common is their humanity.

There are even older instances than this 2,000-year-old story, though.

Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides describes eight stages of tzedakah, or generosity. (The word tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word for “righteousness,” “justice,” or “fairness”: That’s how important charity is to the Jewish tradition.)

The first and lowest form of tzedakah is giving as little as possible, as infrequently as possible, and with as little respect toward the recipient as possible, Gaudiani says. Given that, you might expect the highest form of charity would be giving as much money as frequently as possible.

But this isn’t what Maimonides had in mind. Rather, he meant for us to imagine that some day, the person in need will be the only person able to save your family. And unless you give to that person today, your family will later perish. In this way, Gaudiani says, the giver and the recipient are partners. (If you’ve ever read Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, this is the kind of giving relationship that exists between the spider and the pig.)

Islam also holds charity in high regard. In the sacred text of Islam, the Qur’an, there are five pillar concepts, Gaudiani says. Charity is the second pillar–second only to praising God.

The prophet Muhammad makes an intriguing promise to believers: “You will sustain and grow your wealth at the rate at which you give it away.”

But we don’t have to think of philanthropy as merely the act of giving away money. The word comes from philos and anthropos, the Greek words for “love” and “man.” The broader meaning of philanthropy, then, is love for our fellow human beings. In many cultures this broader idea is communicated as a call for individuals to take responsibility for the welfare of their community.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius, for example, believed people were only whole if they built four key types of bonds: those to family, the community, the nation, and the universe. Confucius advised that when you make a decision or take an action, you should consider its impact on each of those four levels, Gaudiani says.

The theme of community carries over into the Yoruba faith of Nigeria, in which the god Ogun calls all people to care for one another. Interestingly enough, Gaudiani points out, Ogun called for the people in need to be part of the solution for others in even deeper need.

The point is that everyone has something to give. Even if you never have a million dollars to give away, there are a million ways you can help other people. It takes a hard goal, a commitment, and a little of the Percy Ross spirit. If his story is any example, it’s a great way to live a life with no regrets.

When he finished giving away all of his money, Ross wrote a little thank you to his supporters: “I’ll continue to seek financial opportunities in our capitalistic society. In other words, I need to get a job. And, if by chance I can make another pile of money, I’ll be back giving it away.”

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