Charity, kindness, and other acts of benevolence may be far from your mind. The pressures and confusions of life can weigh on us, and prevent us from seeing the need to help others.
The degree to which one is disposed to think of such things often depends on his age and station in life. Yet for most of us, there will come a time when we will want to give something back to those who have, in some small way, enabled us to make our own progress.
And so the charitable impulse is born. It comes from the best motivation, which is the desire to extend kindness to one’s fellows.
But how to go about doing this? Are some ways better than others? We will spend some time here discussing these questions in a general way.
There is no charity unless one is providing one or more of the following: (1) gifts of money; (2) expenditure of time; or (3) hospitality.
So time and money is the basis of all charitable giving. One can give either of these, or both.
It is easier for a wealthy man to give his money than his time; and for this reason we do not often see bank presidents in soup kitchens, administering to the needy. But some problems can arise with gifts through money that we should be aware of.
The first problem is that a gift of money often has less “resonance” than the giving of one’s time in a personal service. The giver writes the check, and he is done. And once the money is used, it is often forgotten. The person getting it may remember it, or his family, but its benefits are not transmitted as broadly as those arising out of some personal service rendered.
But this should not be taken to discourage monetary gifts. In many situations it is the most practical and realistic option available. But the giving of money can lead to unpleasant consequences.
One of these consequences is corruption. He who receives the charity may become dependent on it; and those who witness the gift may become consumed by envy. The receiver begins to identify the giver only with money, and sees him as nothing but a check-book. Not only this, but the giver of a monetary gift comes to believe that anything can be bought with the writing of a check.
So the best advice for the benefactor is to give on occasion, but not too much. Lavish gift-giving is especially to be avoided. It corrupts the recipients, and is not appreciated by them. For some reason, people see the expenditure of huge sums to many people as of less importance than relatively small sums to individuals.
Gratitude needs a specific target; it will otherwise dissipate itself if the charity is spread around to broadly to too many people. And this is why the best way for the extremely wealthy to give is to channel their largesse into a very specific location: such as a museum, school, or hospital. In this way there remains a visible monument to their beneficence.
The second type of charity is the spending of time. The best example I can think of in this category is the performing of pro bono legal work. That is, the taking of a case without monetary reward from the person we are doing the service for.
The satisfaction that can be found in this sort of charity is very deep. Not only does the recipient appreciate it generally (if he is a good person), but all of his friends and family will appreciate it as well (normally).
Some people do not have the means to solve problems on their own. And we should be mindful of this. At the same time, we should not make the mistake of thinking that every poor person is a good one. There are just as many poor people of low character as there are rich people of low character. In my experience, there is little correlation between wealth and moral goodness. Some people who have money are good, and some are not.
The primary considerations in deciding who to help should be the nature and character of the person. Did they get themselves into this situation, and if so, are there any mitigating circumstances? Are they the victims of some injustice? Have they made any effort to help themselves?
The objections to performing personal services as charity are usually based on time and lack of opportunity. “I have no time!” or “I have no idea how to go about doing that!” are frequent responses in this regard.
And yet, when we think about such excuses, we will see them for what they are, which is just that: excuses. Doing some service for someone, if it is properly selected, is not a large imposition of time. And the rewards one gets from doing such a service are great. For a lawyer, it is a great feeling to be able to protect someone who is suffering some injustice, or some oppression.
The last type of charity is hospitality.
This is the one that is most easily rendered. In many older societies, hospitality was extremely important; among the peoples of the Middle East, not to be hospitable to outsiders was a grave offense. In those parts of the world, hospitality was literally a matter of life or death.
Among the bedouins, traveling for long distances over rough terrain was common. If someone refused to provide a traveler water, food, or shelter, it would be grounds for a blood feud. For this reason, hospitality came to be highly regarded as a virtue in that society.
Unfortunately, it seems to be something of a lost art in the West.
We render hospitality when we permit others to stay at our residence for short periods, when we allow friends or acquaintances to burden us with their problems, or when we extend other kindnesses to guests in social ways. It is extremely important, for the absence of a hospitable nature immediately generates resentment in others; and there is no surer way of attracting a reputation as a miser.
So, if you have the opportunity, consider extending some sort of charity to others, in one of the forms discussed above. You will find that it has reciprocal benefits: both you and the recipient will come out the better for it.
Read More: “Stoic Paradoxes” Lecture 7: Only The Wise Man Is Wealthy