A case for charity.

Give a little, get a little.

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.

to all you charitable people…

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 RomneyI say be charitable to them anyways.

nobody likes being the weakest link…

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.

why can’t we have posters like this anymore?

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.

true story

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.

Too much stuff.

Oh internet, you’ll always be my first home…

I’ve been MIA the last two weeks. My wife and I found a house and have been doing what needs to be done to acquire said house. Mostly signing a forest sized quantity of paper with blood from a main artery.  Built in 1951, it’s a brick cape cod with 3 bedrooms, 1 bath, a detached 2 car garage, and room for a large garden. We love it! We move in (hopefully) today. The process has been relatively painless.

When moving to a new home there is the inevitable packing (and unpacking). I find this process to be excruciating; an experience somewhere between water boarding and that crazy torture droid in the original Star Wars. It’s not due to the heavy boxes or that we live on the third story of a condo building. It’s because while packing, I am reminded of the excessive amount of useless shit stuff I have.

This is NOT us… yet…

My wife and I differ in our philosophy of “stuff.” She attaches sentimental or practical future value to things. Bag of sticks=potential crafty project. Battered up non-functional ugly lamp from mom=keepsake. Tin of bottletops & plastic pill bottles=something weird. I do not hold any of this against her; I can intellectually understand her reasoning and feelings behind her acquisitions. They give her comfort in a cold and unpredictable world. For me it’s like fingernails on a chalk board.

While packing, I took note of MY stuff that will go in the “give away/sell/burn” pile. Some are clothes. Some are electronics. Some are pictures. But all have outlasted their usefulness and need to go. Immediately.

Similar to this.

About 3 years ago I traveled to Washington D.C. for a refugee resettlement conference. Heather and I have been active CouchSurfers since 2008 so I found an awesome RPCV willing to let me crash his pad while I was in town. When I arrived at his condo, this is what I saw: 2 beds, 1 table, 1 small bookshelf, 2 chairs, 2 paintings. That’s it.

It was monastic. Walking across his threshold was like walking into a sacred space. I could feel my being stretch out to embrace the unfilled space.

Get rid of all the stuff!

I later learned that his kitchen and closet were much the same way. Minimalistic. Functional. Open. There is a moment in Braveheart where Mel Gibson cries out “Freedom!” I want that feeling in my own home. I want to whittle down all my stuff to a minimum. 1 or 2 pieces of art. A small bookshelf for a couple of keepsakes and a rotating collection of books. Bed. Desk. Done. Same thing for the kitchen, garage, and garden. I want the used and functional. When something stops being functional or ceases being used, I’ll get rid of it.

Which is why packing is painful. It puts all the stupid/kitchy/tacky/useless stuff right up into my grill, makes me protect it, carry it, transport it, and them unpack it to sit on a shelf to gather dust. I know it’s not all cut and dry. The argument is, “You know, you may need X someday, so you might as well have it.”

Shut your word hole right there.

If he would just get rid of the rock, he’d be ok…

I refuse to be held captive by a potential future of potential needs. A disaster preparedness kit is one thing. That is some wise boy-scout voodoo that makes sense. But if I need a power saw for a project, I can either rent one or find one for free on Craigslist. When I’m done with it, away it will go to find a new and useful home. No need for it to take up space in my garage.

Keepsakes are another issue. Photo albums of “important” photos (not the pic of a blurry drunken Uncle Ralph) are needed for family record keeping. Great grandpa’s medal of honor from the civil war is a piece of history. The plastic cartoon moose aunt Mable gave as a Christmas present in 1983 is crap. I am constantly refining the difference.

Best. Gift. Ever.

Gifts are a main source of life sucking crap. We give people things because we (hopefully) like them. It’s well intended. However, I have come to the point where I don’t need any more stuff. If you like me, get me a nice bottle of scotch or bake me some cookies. If you really like me, make a donation in my name to a non-profit that helps people or protects the environment. Just don’t give me a motion activated singing fish. I will hit you with it.

I’ve experienced too many people who are homeless and have no access to food. I’ve lived in places with no toilets or running water. The amount of money I’ve wasted on stupid toys, comic books, dolls action figures, CDs, DVDs, electric potato peelers, glow in the dark foot cozies, and individual french fry crispers could probably have put me through grad school. I’m done being the ignorant, selfish, materialistic American. For a long time, I thought happiness came by having more stuff than the other guy. I was wrong. My happiness comes from my relationships, friendships and family.

I need to stop filling my life with stuff. I need to start filling life with me.