Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Generous Charity

How would you define charity?
In an earlier article, I had pointed out that parting with any excess we may have been blessed with is not generosity, and it is certainly not charity. Purging your closet of extra, unused clothes may be a nice thing to do, it may even be an expression of the desire to help someone in need - but it cannot be classified as philanthropy.

So how do I define charity? Charity requires, by definition, a little bit of self-denial and sacrifice. I can be big-hearted and give a lot of stuff, but real charity does not constitute disposing of something I have enough of (and feeling good about it). Real charity is giving from what is not in reserve to aid someone else. When asked to share their snack with someone who had none for the day, two of my first graders offered half their bag of chips. One child had a lot of other snacks in his bag, one had just juice and the bag he proffered to share. There is a very concrete, definable difference in their otherwise identical kindness. It is defined by what they had to offer to begin with. One may be generous and not charitable, but one can never be charitable without being generous.

So if Melinda Gates decides to hop around the world making sure that poor kids get immunized, she is being generous. And she well can afford to be (and maybe she NEEDS to be)! But it is not real charity. Not according to me. Seriously - big deal! Nice of her, of course, but can we please stop acting as if the world needs to take its collective hat off to her and her trust? The Gates picked something close to their heart. I applaud the fact that they are taking out time and money to help better the world, to help make it safer for others, us, and themselves. Very generous. But charitable??? Hmmm.

I think the essence of charity is looking at what your recipient needs, not what you want to give; to consider what is imperative and pressing (like children chewing on bark in Africa to stave off hunger pangs), rather than what catches your fancy. The Gates think fighting disease is important. It is their priority, but it may not be all-important to kids who take the shots. How about ensuring clean water and environment first? Lawrence O'Donnell raised more than 2 million dollars to buy desks for children in Malawi. Desks! In a country struggling with food shortages, bad government, and rampant AIDS. PLEASE!! Am I the only one who is actually a little annoyed? Everyone else is patting themselves on the back that kids will not have to sit on the floor while learning at school. Do we know if there is enough clean water or food for them at home? Or proper sanitation? Or lunch at school ? Or even if they have enough books or pencils? Is where they sit to learn really that important?

I believe that charity is morally incumbent upon each one of us. Not just generosity, for that is largely dependent on one's nature. The frequency of giving is predicated on things like ability, opportunity and environment. But charity is, for me, something that is required for the purification of one's soul. Once you begin to give because someone else needs it, it ennobles your spirit. When you give of something you cannot spare, it demonstrates how immaterial material things are. It makes you more than the sum total of your possessions. That is a very empowering feeling.

That also means that charity is independent of a person's resources too. How much you have has no correlation to how much you can change someone else's situation, because you will be fulfilling someone's need at that moment. Maybe it is $10, maybe it is a $1000, or maybe it is a snow shovel to borrow. Or giving a push to a stalled car.

I think it is charity when you can smile and wish someone a good day when all you feel like is kicking something or someone(!) real hard. You have to draw on draining emotional reserves to do the right thing. I think that is what the Prophet Muhammad meant when he said 'Smiling is charity.' He was not talking of the mindless grinning to look good, or smiling to look pleasant and make an impression. He was talking of smiling to make the other person feel better.

Oscar Wilde said that no good deed is unselfish. Everything we do is to make ourselves feel better. Are we all so jaded that that is what the definition of good is reduced to? Real charity, I have always believed, is something constant - irrespective of your means, situation, or your life plans. If you are giving $100 to a soup kitchen when you earn 5000K a month, please do not donate a million to UNICEF when you get that 15 million dollar lottery. Make the equal percentage donation to what you know in the heart you always needed to do.

I guess I may be envious of people who have too much money and time to know what to do with themselves - the royalty by accident of birth, the rich by marriage, even the stock market gamblers. So when I accept their generosity at face value as 'charity' - that they are doing this for others and not for themselves, it is I who is being my charitable best!


  1. Well said Sarah. Your article makes so much sense. Thanks for sharing thoughts.

  2. i love it. As usual you hit the nail on the head:) lo0ve your insightful thoughts

  3. Thank you for your kind compliments- and for taking the time to read!


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