Wednesday’s Word: Charity
This is another word that is very familiar. We typically think of it as relating to organizations or activities involving helping those who are less fortunate, who are needy. We give money to charity, we perform acts of charity, or we attend charitable functions to raise awareness or resources for various causes. And yet, while these are all perfectly legitimate uses of the word, I’d like to touch on the etymology (origin and history of how it has changed in meaning) of charity because there is one sense of this word which has largely been lost today and it is something we ought not to have forgotten.
You see the word stems originally from the old French words charité and carité which are similar in meaning to the word today (mercy, compassion, alms, charitable organizations, etc), but also from the Latin caritas (costliness, esteem, affection) and in this sense it was often used in the translation of the Latin Vulgate bible for the Greek word, agape, “love”. In these translations it carried a very specific sense as in loving one’s neighbor. And here is where the word proved so useful, I think, because it connected actual love with acts of compassion, whereas today, the word has been somewhat divorced from the affections and is often reduced to the mere act of philanthropy. I can write a check, a rather large one in fact, and send it off in a “act of charity” and yet deep down I may be positively indifferent to the plight of those I am helping. My “love” for them (if it could even be called that) is abstract, hollow, and may be more about myself and “sticking up for a cause” than any real, genuine charity from the heart.
You see, in the older sense, charity and love were so intertwined that they were really almost synonyms. Showing love for others and charity were one and the same. C.S. Lewis, in his marvelous work, The Screwtape Letters, (which is a satirical look at how demons perceive humanity and a book which I highly recommend) touched on this when he wrote:
The grand problem is that of “unselfishness”. Note, once again, the admirable work of our Philological Arm in substituting the negative unselfishness for the Enemy’s positive Charity. Thanks to this you can, from the very outset, teach a man to surrender benefits not that others may be happy in having them but that he may be unselfish in forgoing them. That is a great point gained.
Charity, true charity, is giving to meet the needs of people we meet without hope or thought as to what we shall get in return (whether by way of payment or admiration). By defining charity as a mere act of “spreading the wealth” or “giving of my time and resources” we have in fact covered over the real need of people and that is to be loved, particularly and personally. And while I am sure there are many people involved in charitable work who do in fact display true charity in the older, more archaic sense, I think by compartmentalizing it off into organizational activities or a check we write at the end of the month, we have forgotten that charity is something we are to display towards all people at all times, rich and poor, friend and enemy alike.
I just don’t sense that very much anymore in society today, that sense of treating others with kindness and respect, with compassion and love. Most of us are far too busy for that, we can’t be bothered. Or perhaps we do look for ways to help others, but then we later grind the axe of resentment when they do not reciprocate or even appreciate our kindness. We are curt, cliquish, and comfortable just looking out for ourselves more often than not. Oh, if we start to feel bad about it we can do some volunteer work for total strangers now and then to absolve our consciences and then slip back into our private little world, but charity, real charity should happen in the day to day, towards the co-worker or the postman, towards our friends and family. For no one is exempt from the need for love and the poorest beggar may be counted richer than kings and presidents if he has love and they do not.
Real charity of this sort may be seen in our response to those who treat us harshly, who may even be belligerent or cruel. Charity does not demand the same measure of respect and deference that it metes out. It shows itself in the way we speak of others when they are not present, in the exhibition of manners and in the forebearance of crass and vulgar speech not out of custom or convention, but out of deference to those who may not care or even notice, or if they do, will mock us as antiquated or as prudes. It delights in listening, in quiet service, and the celebration of the success of others. Charity is a balm for wounded hearts and weary souls.
But though this kind of charity may be in short supply, it has not vanished to the point that it is unrecognizable when we see it. To that end, I’d like to leave you with a short video which I find incredibly moving. At first glance, it might appear to be about the mere act of giving, but I think it runs deeper than that. As far as I know this dramatization is not based on fact, but, like all good fiction, it has the ring of truth to it (in fact, the older man in this clip reminds me somewhat of how I picture Zhang, a character in my recent novella, The Jammer and the Blade). My hope is that this video or something I have written here might inspire you to some act of real charity as well. And here’s to hoping that one day that older sense of charity will come back into fashion once again.