What Makes Us Human – Dame Stephanie Shirley

If you were listening to radio 2 today (06/02/2018) you may have heard the following essay about giving from Dame Stephanie Shirley. Radio 2 asked her the question “What makes us human?” and this is what she had to say on the matter.

Many animals behave in ways that benefit their kin but philanthropy is a distinguishing characteristic of the human species.
I was an unaccompanied child refugee from Nazi Europe. Generous strangers gave me a loving home. Their Christian ethic was that it was better to give than to receive.

As an agnostic I believe in only the last 6 of the 10 commandments. Those enclosed in the golden rule “do as you would be done by”. Quakers usually give anonymously, always without any fuss. Muslims do not give to charity but rather in charity to individuals. Much more difficult. And like practicing Jews, think of giving as a duty not an option. Sheikhs believe life has three equal dimensions. One of which is giving ones earnings, talents and time to the less fortunate. Buddhists recognise philanthropy as the gift of service and teaching rather than of wealth or material possession. The various faiths may all seem different but like picking individual mushrooms, if you dig down and look underneath they are all one. All equally valid givers. The important thing is that they all give.

What drives the giving spirit?

Most of us are taught as children to share and to give. Perhaps as part of family tradition. Many families struggle to make do. But some mega wealthy people want to limit the amount the heirs inherit, so as to release them to make their own way.
Devout people give to satisfy divine will.
In light and self interest is when we give to others and so indirectly help ourselves. Perhaps as insurance. To Age UK for possible future benefit ourselves? Or as entry into some elite group? Or with reputation to show moral dignity not just our spending power. Unfakeable, authentic advertising. Now these drivers contrast with the altruistic. It’s the right thing to do. Giving makes me feel good. The positive psychology movement swears that doing good has fabulous mental health benefits. And brain scans show the pleasure centres in the brain are stimulated when we act unselfishly. My own giving is some sort of repayment for all that I have been given. Perhaps the motives hardly matter. Giving is high on the list of virtues. Anyone can do it. We might not be particularly moral. We might be partial to a drink too many, have a roving eye or prefer light reading to philosophy. We may not see ourselves as all that spiritual but we can all give. That’s what makes us human.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

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I have been very lucky in my life. My experience as an unaccompanied child refugee gave me the drive to prove that my life had been worth saving. My early experience of the ‘glass ceiling’ at work encouraged me to set up my own business which, thanks to my supportive husband, I did in 1962. While planning to start a family, I hit upon the brilliant idea of offering part-time employment to professional women with dependents and perforce developed new techniques to manage the business on this basis. The IT business, later known as Xansa and now part of the Sopra Steria Group, prospered and I became wealthy.

This wealth has enabled me to devote my ‘retirement’ to giving something back to society. I have originated and supported strategic projects in the fields of autism (our son Giles was autistic) and IT, particularly making better use of IT in the voluntary sector.

Dame Stephanie Shirley

 

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