Charity. Noun: The voluntary giving of help, typically money, to those in need. Help or money given in this way.
My parents did a good job of raising me to be a man of charity; it was through action rather than words. Following their example, I also give out of my excess (time, money, food) to those who need it. I do it without fanfare and not because of some heavenly reward. I just believe generosity is the right thing to do. I want the society I live in to be a “pay it forward” society. I also do it because people do it for me all the time.
Over the last week, no fewer than 4 people have shown me acts of charity. Two gave me car rides home (without me asking), one bought me coffee, and another let me out of work early. These are small, almost insignificant acts. But they were done spontaneously, which is what makes the difference. These were random acts of kindness that made my life a little easier, brighter, and in the case of car rides home, significantly less wet.
However, charity has become a dirty word in society. People on the margins are called “charity cases” and people who give charity “bleeding hearts.” I can understand being disillusioned. A lot of people are selfish, rude and downright ungrateful. It’s always easier to blame people for needing charity, just ask Mitt Romney. I say be charitable to them anyways.
An action that makes another person’s life easier should be a good thing. Especially if it was done spontaneously with no recompense required. I believe charity’s negative connotation happened when we started to equate charity with weakness. People who need it are weak. People who give it are weak. If I learned anything as an American, it’s that our culture despises all forms of weakness; physical, psychological, and emotional. We have a perspective that says “if you can’t help yourself, why should I help you?” This wasn’t always the case.
For my parents, charity was a religious and civic duty. For my grandparents, it was a way of life. It was American to help your fellow citizen and to make sacrifices for community and country. It seemed that our objective in the past was to raise up those who were weak, so they could be strong. Now I feel that many Americans look with disdain on “weakness.” I believe this happened slowly as consumerism and materialism became more prominent as a judge of success, and success became equal to goodness. Accumulation of wealth became more important than accumulation of relationships; we forgot how important charity was to our cultural ethic. It helped connect us to the rest of our community, reminding us that we are only as good as our weakest friend.
Paying it forward reminds me not to give into selfishness. People in my life are constantly doing good works for me. Instead of paying them back, I pass their kindness on. My hope is that by making another person’s day a little better, I set in motion a chain of events that will make a whole bunch of other people’s day better. It may be a naive belief, but I’ve seen it in action. This is why charity is not weakness; it is a conduit of moving people to become strong.