THEOSOPHY, Vol. 51, No. 10, August, 1963
(Pages 280-282; Size: 9K)


[Article number (10) in this Q&A Department]

Charity has always been considered the greatest of virtues, so great, in fact, that without it no other virtue has any real meaning. But if this is true, then why does the word "charity" seem to carry such a bad connotation nowadays?

It is probably possible to answer this question in as theoretical a way as that in which it is asked, but it might be more helpful to make an approach in a particular and practical manner. To make a concrete application of the question, for instance, one might ask what attitude to take when approached by a "beggar."

Even now that the question has been narrowed, however, it is still quite easy to give a merely theoretical answer; for the premise being that all men are on the spiritual plane united and interdependent, the natural conclusion would be that we ought to help the beggar in every way possible. Yet the reality of "helping" is extremely complex, and one may know things intellectually, but in a real situation still feel either embarrassment or confusion. What is the cause of such embarrassment? Or, put in the terms of the question, why is the impulse towards charitable actions so often hesitant and ambiguous?

The most obvious reason is the fact of distrust. People often take refuge in pretended indifference as they might behind the wall of a fortress. The beggar approaching might be carrying a knife, or, what is almost more frightening, he might be ready to "stab" us with hatred or ridicule. We don't take the chance -- we just walk past with a straight face and act as if we do not see his outstretched hand.

Another possible reason for this ambivalence lies in the enormity of the world's suffering. A newspaper editor has to deal with so many cases of murder, rape, destitution, and all sorts of catastrophes, that very soon he is not affected by them. Perhaps the ordinary human mind is not (and does not wish to be) capable of responding to pain beyond a certain limit. In a lesser way, most of us have seen -- walking down a Harlem street -- so much misfortune that our feelings become dulled to the pain of others. And now, seeing a beggar approaching us, we must continue to be dull, for to admit that he has a unique existence and is worthy of our sympathy implies that we must feel everyone else's sufferings as well.

This uncomfortable feeling has other roots, too, not the least of which is a subtle feeling of guilt. The ultimate basis for this sensation is mysterious and obscure, perhaps lying in the basic unity of all mankind, in the unbounded responsibility that is entailed in being human. At least, though, the sense of guilt many include feeling that we are not doing enough even if we give the man money or a meal, that we have not done our duty towards him until he has been reclaimed, not as a working cog in the enormous machinery of society, but as a human being. In addition, many people, when confronted by a wretched beggar, have a kind of sick feeling simply at having to admit this terrible human possibility -- for what is visible in others must reside as potentiality in ourselves.

These seem to be some of the reasons that most people, when accosted, simply avert their eyes. But there is another reason as well, one related to our whole way of looking at life; for, ignoring the findings of modern science, most people still consider themselves the center of the universe. In a sense, one inherits this fantasy of cosmic centrality from babyhood, when one's whole tiny world was at one's beck and call; but the simple fact of incarnation, of individualization, itself invites the illusion that all things and beings revolve around one's self, instead of around the "sun," that is, the Universal Self. As long as one continues to live in this insular world of fantasy, nothing will seem ultimately real except one's own lower self. The sight of a beggar, with his expectant open hands, endangers this pleasant world of fantasy; it is a piece of reality that is hard to rationalize into illusion; and it makes one uneasy lest one be forced to admit the startling possibility of the existence of a personality other than one's own. For with this admission, one is obliged to replace fantasy with imagination, and to reach out to that other individuality, and to try to see life through his eyes.

True charity, therefore, can come only with a clarity of vision. If one really recognizes the beggar as a total human being, it seems inconceivable that one would not automatically stop to see him. The trouble is that one is too conscious of the space between himself and the other, too conscious of subject and object, of benefactor and recipient. And it is partly by reason of this self-consciousness that the word "charity" has a bad connotation these days. This unnaturalness is of course redoubled when there is a third person, or an organization, between the donor and the needy person, as H.P.B. makes clear in the Key to Theosophy (pp. 244-5):

Act individually and not collectively; follow the Northern Buddhist precepts: .... "Never give money to the needy, or food to the priest, who begs at thy door, through thy servants, lest thy money should diminish gratitude, and thy food turn to gall" .... Therefore it is that every sovereign of all those "millions," contributed by good and would-be charitable people, falls like a burning curse instead of a blessing on the poor whom it should relieve.
But even when one is acting individually, it is vitally important how one acts. Some people, feeling self-conscious (perhaps for some of the reasons mentioned earlier), may toss a beggar a quarter and keep walking, without once looking the man in the eye. Others do the opposite, making a great deal of their action, like boy-scouts earning a merit badge, all the while thinking, "What a good boy am I." In either case, the emphasis is on the giver and the gift, the beggar being unseen and uncared about.

It seems, then, that individual charity can be as much a "burning curse" as collective charity, especially since it is evident that what the beggar is asking for, with his hand eternally, patiently, open, is not money at all, but recognition. He wants to be seen. But for all the quarters people will toss him, for all the handouts charitable organizations will give him, no one is willing really to look at him in the face and recognize him as a human soul.

What hampers this clear seeing more than anything else is what one might call the "good-Samaritan complex." We become so aware of ourselves as benefactors that we fail to understand that any meeting between two people must be a two-way process. We must, as Ralph Ellison once said in conversation, "try to bring as much consciousness as possible to events" -- try to meet all souls frankly and sympathetically, try to live as fully as we can. In this way we can help a person without putting ourselves in the unnatural position of "doing him a favor." In this way he will be able to feel the soul-cleansing emotion of gratitude without having to grovel. In this way we do not "lower ourselves," but raise both him and ourselves to a high point of sharp, vital communication.

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(September 1963)
[Article number (11) in this Q&A Department]

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