Ruminations

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Name: Dave Leigh
Location: Union, South Carolina, United States

I was born too young. And when I die, I'll still be too young.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Charity

"...tired of hearing about Haiti. Why can't [we] hear about someplace cooler like Kenya?"

This was posted to Facebook by one of my children. I responded, "Because, my cold and calculating son, natural disasters are not slaves of fashion. We will discuss."

What follows is the gist of that discussion. PLEASE read this through to the end, as I think it's well worth it.

Once there was a small boy who never said a word. From birth he never uttered a single sound... not to cry, not to complain. Nothing at all. One day at the dinner table, as he and his family were eating, he quietly said, "The soup's cold."

His parents were astounded! His mother, shedding tears of joy, shouted, "My son! My son! All your life you've been completely silent! Never a word! And now, suddenly, miraculously, you speak! Tell me, why have you never spoken before?"

The boy meekly replied, "Everything's been OK up until now."
When someone is doing OK, you don't necessarily hear from them. The old adage, "No news is good news" is generally true. But when someone is in trouble you hear from them and about them A LOT. This is true whether it's another country, like Haiti, or the family in the house around the corner. You may never have met that family. You may not even know their name. But if their roof were to collapse you would help, right? Of course!

We have an unusual sort of "charity" in my house. On occasion (about five times now) we invite someone in distress to live with us. It didn't start out as a conscious decision to be charitable. Rather, we knew someone who needed a "leg up" and we had some spare room. Then it happened again... and again. Once it was a young woman who was living in Florida. She was in a bad neighborhood, surrounded by drugs and "gangstas" and bad influences, with no apparent way out. She and her two sons were living in one room of a trailer. We invited her and her boys to stay with us. The deal was the same as we have always offered. Stay with us. Pay no rent. Buy no food. Don't worry about expenses. Just be part of the family, look for a job and save your money for six months before you even think about moving out. If you do exactly that then you'll have six months of wages for a security deposit, first and last month's rent, and any deposits necessary for utilities and you'll still have a little in the bank so you're not living hand-to-mouth.

As I said, we've done this a number of times, and it's not really a difficult thing to do... most Americans waste enough food to feed yet another family, and we're no exception. And everybody has room, whether they think they do or not. A fold-out couch or a couple of cots... c'mon.

Well, Peggy took us up on the offer and as usually happens she asked how she could repay us. The answer, as always, was, "You can't. We won't let you. But someday you'll be in a position to help somebody and you will do it. Not because I'm telling you to, but because you know it's the right thing to do." It has never once been our intention to receive some reward or "payback" for helping somebody out.

A few years later my own mother took ill. She had struggled with various forms of cancer for decades, but this time it was lymphoma, and incurable. She was in a nursing home for a short time, but that really wasn't the sort of place you'd want to spend your last moments, so we brought her home to stay at my brother's house. Although hospice workers could visit occasionally, it got to the point where Mom needed 'round-the-clock care, which was completely unaffordable.

By this time Peggy's kids were out of school and working, so they took over the rent on her place as she quit her job as a cashier and moved back in and took care of my mother until Mom died. We couldn't afford to pay her a salary, but again she had no rent, and no expenses, as well as the exclusive use of Mom's car (which Mom gave to her before she died. As a totally inadequate thank-you we had it completely serviced and painted). I've incidentally mentioned Peggy before.

When we helped Peggy and told her to pass on the favor, we had no idea that we would be the people to benefit down the line. And when Peggy quit her job to help us, she had no idea that she herself might benefit from her own boundless generosity.

Nevertheless, she did. The hospice workers noticed what she was doing, and that she was very good at it. They suggested to her that she could do this as a living. They set her up with financial aid, a part-time job at the hospital, and credited her time caring for my mother as an internship. She wound up with the best job she had ever held in her life. Her act of selfless charity turned her life around. Instead of being a low-paid cashier in a convenience store she is now a respected and well-paid healthcare worker.

Clearly, people do notice when you do "the right thing." But I'm not telling this story to suggest that if you are charitable you're going to get something back from it. This isn't about karma or payback or quid-pro-quo*. Oprah's wrong... there is no 'The Secret'. I'm telling you this for this reason... I want you to ask yourself a question:

Isn't it a comfort to know that if someone truly needs help there's someone else in the world who is willing to give that help? Isn't that nice?
But you can't know that. You can't know what's in anybody else's mind and heart. The only person you can speak for is yourself. If you want to know... for a fact... that someone in this world is willing to help a total stranger, the one and only possible way to know that is to be that person.

That's the point that you can realize that no person is truly unique. We all share our humanity. There are many people like you. And if you're willing to help, they are too. Get it? If there's one person who's willing to help, there are millions. But the only way to ensure that there is one is by being that 'one'.

This is why we as individuals must be charitable. If we're not, then there's no guarantee that anyone will be. And it's not enough to just let the government do it. That is a solution reserved for the lazy, the cowardly, and the apathetic. It's a way for them to not be charitable and say they are. It's a little lie they tell themselves because they don't understand what and why they should do for others.

And it's wasteful. We as individuals could help someone like Peggy out without any material injury to ourselves, absolutely no expense to others, and with negative waste. By contrast, how much would it have cost to put her up in government housing with subsidized furniture rentals, provide her with food stamps, etc.? If she -- or any of the others -- had gone that route they would probably still be there. How many American homes have a "spare room" of some sort? How many people just absolutely could not put up someone temporarily? Now ask yourself, "why is anyone homeless?"

Furthermore, government agencies can only do what they're set up to do. But there is no limit to the number of ways that people need help. And it's not hard. If someone is hungry, invite him to dinner. If someone needs shoes, buy some. Donate your old clothes to the Salvation Army, and drop some change in the bucket next Christmas. Smile when you do it. Donate to Toys for Tots. Watch the neighbor's kids.

In terms of disasters like Haiti we can't all pick up and rush down there to dig in the rubble and rebuild. It would be chaos if we did. But the least we can do is send representatives, and the money, and the food, and the comfort that these people need. They don't live next door, but they are our neighbors and our brothers and deserve every bit of compassion we can share.

Charity begins in the home, but it need not end there.

--
* I purposely left out any mention of God and religion from this discussion. The reason is very simple. There's not one thing that I'm saying here that isn't as valid for the most staunch atheist as it is for the Pope himself. And though God may choose to reward good behavior, He doesn't owe you Jack. Nor does he make any promise as to exact nature or time of your reward. Do nothing good in this life on the premise that you will be rewarded for it. Do it because its right, or don't bother. If you don't understand this paragraph you are currently in the "don't bother" category.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Michelle Weil said...

I love you Uncle Dave. You are one of the most real, well-spoken and respectful people I know. Such an inspiring Truth. Thank you for posting.

Jan 16, 2010 8:02:00 PM  
Blogger Spin said...

Dave you might be the nicest guy I've met...well over the internet at least. :D

Jan 17, 2010 7:52:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Leigh said...

Spin, I'm not any nicer than you or the people all around you (and since I know some of the people around you I'm pretty confident saying that).

My actual intent here is just to show people that everybody can do WAY more than they think they can. Things that you just think aren't out of your way at all can affect other people in a BIG way. And it doesn't have to be making room in your house (which I wouldn't necessarily do for just anybody. I have rules. And even if I didn't, my wife does, and this was HER idea). Just some random act of kindness that doesn't put you out. Most people just don't realize all the nice things they can do with little or no effort at all.

Jan 18, 2010 3:31:00 AM  
Blogger Dave Leigh said...

I love you, too, Michelle!

Jan 18, 2010 3:32:00 AM  

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