Wednesday, December 26, 2007

On charity

Reading yesterday's Merry Christmas greetings, it occurs to me that some of you may think I've went all mushy for the holiday season, or worse, the Florida heat has affected my thinking. So I thought a few thoughts on charity and the nature of charity might be in order.

One of Daughter's Christmas presents was DVD copies of the TV show "House". Now, "House" might seem to be unrelated to the discussion of charity, but it isn't. Last night we watched the episode "TB or Not TB", where the question was whether a doctor who spent most of his time working with the poor in Africa was a selfless martyr to his cause of tuberculosis eradication or a self-serving publicity hound whose acts of charity were actually his way of getting his ego stroked.

When you have a smart kid, things like this are guaranteed to start a conversation. Especially when you're engaged in a family vacation where money is being spent rather freely (as opposed to normal) and the point is made that $20 of medicine can save a life. So we had a midnight talk on the nature of charity. I think there are several kinds, some good, some bad, some indifferent.

One kind of charity is when we do something for someone, just because we can. It makes us "feel good", and usually helps out the recipient for a short period only. Dropping money into the Salvation Army's red kettles or donating to a disaster fund usually falls into this category. We could characterize it as giving a man a fish. We fed him today, but done nothing to help the real root of his problem.

Another kind of charity, and a more difficult one sort out, helps the recipient out for a long time--perhaps for their entire life. I find it hard to come up with really good examples of this, since all of the candidates, such as Habitat For Humanity or the millionaire who said he would send an entire class of kids to college, or the gazillioanire computer geek who funds good works, always have some element of self-aggrandizement (intentional or unintentional, real or imagined) for the founder. We could characterize this along the lines of handing over the keys to a well-stocked fish market. It may help or it may hurt; it may be used foolishly or wisely.

However, there is the sort of charity where your donation is anonymous to the recipient and the world at large, and has the potential to change a life or lives forever. (That link is an example; there are plenty of others.) You, as donor, still get to feel good, but the self-aggrandizement aspect is eliminated. Charity in a purer form, if you will. We have taught someone to fish.

And this is the sort of charity I have in mind when I say "Think about those who are less fortunate than you during this season, and reflect on what you can do to help them out." Give someone your catch if that's what you desire, but better to teach them to catch their own.

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