Let’s face it charity is tough business for most of us. It sits at the apex of all of the other virtues and ergo the hardest one to master. There are the occasional uncommon mortals we know who are truly charitable. No, I am not talking about those who wrap themselves in emotionalism, outrage porn or fake outrage about “news” on the Internet. Charity is not an “expression of a vehement point of view”. And, I am not talking about those who advocate for a Rube Goldberg array of government programs and more investments. That’s something else, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but it is definitely not charity and it is not unconditional love. Charity after all is transitive and personal and cannot be carried out from comforts of our lofty places.
What I am talking about is that quaint version of socialism, without the endless social engineering, where individuals willingly, quietly and simply take care of their family, friends, and neighbors. What I am talking about is honest to goodness true charity. I am talking about those people who naturally love working with the elderly , the handicap, the poor, the stranger-the least among us warts and all even when they are beggarly, dirty, funky smelling, rude, mean, profligate, and ungrateful. I am referring to those people who at a drop of a hat will make meals for neighbors or friends when they are sick or down on their luck. They are those people who decide to learn to quilt, can or make gooseberry jams and jellies with the sole goal of sharing with other folks. They are those people whose whole lives seem to be one simple act of kindness and patience. They only see the good in others. They realize that we are not alone in this world and truly see us all as brothers and sisters. We know these people and they are not us, they are strangers in our midst. It is their virtue and their goodness that keeps our societies civil as Elder Neal A. Maxwell once stated:
“There is a critical mass of basically good people which is essential to the functioning of any society or culture. The exact number cannot be mathematically determined by us, but without this critical mass the world rapidly deteriorates. These good people give more to society than they demand of it. Though imperfect themselves, they furnish not only the goods, but the good will, without which little could be done for others.”
The rest of us struggle and see the world much like French Prime Minister George Clemenceau when he responded to Woodrow Wilson’s vagaries about brotherhood agreeing that all men are brothers just “like Cain and Abel”. We struggle with charity. We struggle to even define it properly. It is not romantic love as many young people are wont to think when they quote 1 Corinthians 13 during their wedding vows, referring to each other as charity cases. At least, their hearts are in the right place and the Apostle Paul’s words are a good place to start a marriage.
For the rest of us, we have to work hard to convince ourselves to give up whatever we had planned even if it was just sitting in front of the TV to watch two or three hours of murder porn on ID TV while surfing the Internet shopping or posting and sharing on social media. (Guilty! Very, very guilty!) For the rest of us we look often look for excuses to get out of, rather than do charitable work. We wait to see if others will volunteer before we do. We are relieved when too many volunteers show up and are actually happy when we can’t find the place that the event is at.
Part of the problem with charity, at least on the surface, is that is oftentimes just not that rewarding. Much of charity involves doing mundane things like cleaning toilets, packing up boxes, or driving someone to the store. There is nothing heroic in doing ordinary things for others that any schmuck could do. Or sometimes it’s doing more difficult things like changing adult diapers or helping someone take a bath who otherwise is incapable of doing it. Or sometimes it involves having to watch someone else’s not so adorable and needy kids. And then there are the people you serve they are for several reason just not grateful of your time and your work or your “charity”.
One time when my stepson was about 12 or 13, we were playing basketball at the local elementary school a young adult man with Down syndrome asked if he could play with us. We decided to be charitable and let him on our game of twenty-one and we thought it would be charitable to only perfunctory play defense on him and give him several chances to make a basket. We were not rewarded for our charity. No sooner had this young man scored his first basket than he started to talk smack and it was not charitable. Using language typically reserved for sailors he let us know how bad we were playing and how good he was playing. He was relentless. At first it was mildly amusing, since I had worked with the handicapped before and I knew that it was not uncommon for handicapped to swear uncontrollably.
After about 20 minutes of cussin’ and a cursin’ at us, I could tell my stepson who is generally more outgoing and generous than I am was getting frustrated with the fruits of his kindness. There are only so many insults the pride of a young man can take. He finally had come to his breaking point and told the young man that it looked like his mom was calling for him on the other side of the soccer field. Our “charity case” called us out on this fib. It was clear that his family was getting along admirably without him. So we had to finally come clean and let him know we were done being charitable.
When I was going to school I worked at a group home and it was no picnic. Of course, I wasn’t doing it to be charitable. But nonetheless it was hard to find it rewarding at the time. First of all, it’s hard to know if you are doing any good. Progress is hard to measure in a group home setting. Second of all, there is a lot of unpredictability working with the handicapped. The guy I was primarily assigned to had stabbed the previous caretaker and that wasn’t the first time! Luckily, we never had any incidents. There was a young man in neighboring group home who was a true assassin if there ever was .I dreaded the days I had to work with him. While he was developmentally disabled and essentially a mute, he was definitely disabled strong if there is such a thing (in our non-PC days we’d call it “retard strong”, but we don’t say that anymore for good reason). He had a penchant for hitting, pinching and pulling hair without warning. Believe me getting hit in the head from behind when you least expect it will put your limited capacity for charity to the test. God bless him though, I like to think he did not know what he was doing when he would with incredible precision ambush me and land those perfectly placed sucker punches.
The convenient thing about living in an imperfect world is that there are oodles of opportunities for us to learn to have faith and be patient, kind, merciful and most of all charitable. The capacity to be deeply charitable is in our spiritual DNA, we all have the light of Christ within us. We have to start looking beyond our anxieties about worldly power, social status, and our obsession with shiny things and start looking beyond all the identities and labels we apply to ourselves and others and reach out. And start realizing that life is not a zero sum game and that with true charity everybody can get out of this life victorious.