Charity

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By: 
Matt Geiger

It’s become fashionable these days to chastise people for their charity. The critiques, which have accusatory titles and acerbic adjectives galore, spread like wildfire on social media. They allege that people who do charitable work are doing it wrong, or doing it for the wrong reasons.

The specific nature of the charges varies, but the idea is always the same; that holiday giving is a fraud, and the love people suddenly feel for one another is a fraud, as well. Each article asserts that people are all greedy, and those who appear to help others only  do so in their own self-interest. 

I remember a couple Christmases ago, seeing many of my friends post an article that complained about the types of foods people were dropping off at food pantries. While many pantries primarily ask for shelf-stable items, such as canned goods, this article lambasted anyone who gave anything that wasn’t fresh and organic. The piece was incredibly long and went into great detail about the high sodium content in cans of soup and the ample saturated fat in corned beef hash.

“Oh, good,” I thought. “Scolding people for giving food to the hungry should really help keep pantry shelves full.”

As is often the case, the person who wrote the article, and the millions of people who reposted it, were not actually helping anyone with their criticism. They inevitably depressed donations to various food pantries that year, but they were merely complaining because they were not in total agreement with the method many fellow citizens had been using when trying to make the world a better place. If the world could not be better in the exact way they wanted, it had to be wrong. 

They were complaining without offering a real solution, which is essentially “whining.” Like someone who stands back as a team of community members paints a beautiful mural on a crumbling inner-city wall and comments: “They are using too much yellow! That rainbow is crooked.”

It’s become lost on modern society that calling people selfish or racist or sexist or corrupt doesn’t actually make the world any less selfish or racist or sexist or corrupt; it only makes the world a little angrier. The only way to make earth better is to be better.

This year, people are infatuated with a new article, which is spreading around the world and will surely be read by many more people than this one. It again adopts a scolding tone, admonishing people who give to coat drives, food pantries and school supply events. It suggests that “privileged people” should not use charitable giving “as a form of holiday entertainment.” The idea is that if someone enjoys something, if that thing makes them feel good, it is somehow less good, less ethical, and less helpful. 

While I see millions of people who set aside their daily lives each year to suddenly, as if by magic, actually do something to ease the suffering of others, they saw only the most sinister, cynical motives. 

What they don’t know is that the debate about why we do good things is thousands of years old. Philosophers have long wondered not only if certain acts are selfless, but also if such acts could ever even exist. Because in life, every good thing we do makes us feel good. That’s one of the beautiful quirks of nature, that helping others nearly always helps you. “Love” is an abstract noun untethered to anything with form, and many people much more clever than I have wondered whether we can even really love anything, or if perhaps love that shines outward is in fact only there to illuminate the self. But we all know love is real, anyway.

Earlier this year I interviewed a funny and wise woman who lives in the same town I do. A Buddhist monk, she spent many years thinking about such things, and she told me, over tea at a local café, that all emotions flow out from deep inside ourselves. So, if you feel hatred for your enemy, that hatred must first pass through you. You are the first person to feel the hatred; it only reaches your enemy after ruining your day. The same can be said for love, for when you love a mother, father, brother, sister, child, or stranger, the love wells up from somewhere deep inside you, and you are its first and foremost beneficiary. You feel your own emotions as you send them out into the world. 

I engaged in long debates in college about whether or not people who engage in good works, people who feed soup (yes, even high sodium soup) to the hungry, or open up their homes to refugees, are in fact selfish, acting the way they do only because they wish to gain favor with some god and thereby enter heaven, where they can lounge about in absolute comfort for all eternity. Perhaps, we sometimes wondered, the kindest people are in fact the most selfish ones, the ones most greedy for the universe and its hypothetical ethereal overseer to approve of their lives, the most dedicated to eternal reward. The hungriest for a kind of ethical harmony of action. 

Every year, around this time, I publish a few lines from one of my favorite books, “A Christmas Carol.” Sometimes I throw in a few lines from Bill Murray when he played Scrooge some 30 years ago. I’m including it again this year, because it will remain true, perhaps even more than true, for as long as we trudge through our lives, awaking each morning to suffering, hunger, and perplexing critiques of our kindness. 

“It’s Christmas Eve! It’s... it’s the one night of the year when we all act a little nicer, we smile a little easier, we... we cheer a little more. For a couple of hours out of the whole year, we are the people that we always hoped we would be. It’s a... miracle. It’s really a sort of a miracle. Because it happens every Christmas Eve. And if you waste that miracle, you’re gonna burn for it, I know what I am talking about. You have to do something. You have to take a chance. You do have to get involved. There are people that are having... having trouble making their miracle happen. There are people that don’t have enough to eat, or people that are cold. You can go out and say hello to these people. You can take an old blanket out of the closet and say ‘Here!’, you can make them a sandwich and say ‘Oh, by the way, here!’ I... I get it now! And if you... if you give, then it can happen, then the miracle can happen to you! It’s not just the poor and the hungry, it’s everybody’s who’s gotta have this miracle! And it can happen tonight for all of you! If you believe in this spirit thing, the miracle will happen and then you’ll want it to happen again tomorrow. You won’t be one of these [jerks] who says, ‘Christmas is once a year and it’s a fraud’, it’s NOT! It can happen every day, you’ve just got to want that feeling. And if you like it and you want it, you’ll get greedy for it! You’ll want it every day of your life and it can happen to you! I believe in it now! I believe it’s going to happen to me now! I’m ready for it! And it’s great. It’s a good feeling, it’s really better than I’ve felt in a long time. I, I, I’m ready. Have a Merry Christmas, everybody.”

He’s right. Because we should all be greedy for it. Greedy for others to be happy, and greedy for us to each play a small role in making them that way. If we are, our greed will sustain us and buttress our humanity.

This greed is a like a hunger that fills the bellies of everyone around it. 

In both the Bill Murray version and the original Charles Dickens version of the story, what comes next is perhaps the most famous part. A little boy, who is thin and lame and who will die without charity, steps forward to add one statement.

“God bless us, every one.”

The point is not that one particular god or another, smiles upon those who give, or those who need. Or even that god is real or takes a certain shape. The point, of course, is that if we are kind, and greedy for kindness, the cosmos will brim with kindness, it will be filled with harmony, if not all year long, at least for a few days each winter. 

Tiny Tim chooses his few words with care. He doesn’t say, “God bless me” or “God bless the poor and the hungry.” Nor does he say, “God bless those who are rich and give to others.” He says, “God bless us, every one.”

It’s a message that should give a little hope and joy to all of us. Every. Single. One.

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