While in earlier times charity meant love, my discussion of the virtue today will center on the way we commonly use the term today. We think of charity as giving, frequently money, to those in need. Sometimes we think of large organizations such as the Salvation Army as a charity. But my thoughts today are around the tension I feel when confronted with people asking me for money.
It’s a rare day when I can drive without seeing someone, usually a man, standing next to the traffic lane with a piece of cardboard hand lettered with a message saying something like “homeless, hungry, willing to work.” Unfailingly I will arrive at a stop light and sit for a time next to the person with the sign. I doubt his sign; I doubt my charitable heart; I drive on wondering about the encounter.
Our church, in a poverty stricken downtown, attracts a number of the homeless. We feed them sandwiches each day; we hand out gloves, hats and socks; our friars give out bus passes, food gift cards and medical co-pays. In the dead of winter we are an emergency warm up shelter. Still individuals ask us directly for money. Our priest has asked us to send anyone on to him and not give out money. So we don’t, but it is challenging to look at someone obviously struggling and say no.
So yes I know that many of these people are addicts. Yes I know that many of them would just use the money for drugs or alcohol. So yes I know that would be enabling. So my charity would be enabling I guess. So I put extra money in our poor box, trusting our friars to know what to do and who to help and how to best help each poor soul. That was my act of charity today.
Into every life a prickly person must come. I find them in the neighborhood, at church, at the store and on the sidewalk. Some are just passing by, but some are in my life for the long haul. Kindness as a virtue seems especially challenging for me in these situations. Most often my first impulse is to placate the person to protect myself. This habit established itself early in my life and produces faux kindness, not the real thing.
Kindness comes easily towards kittens, babies and friendly people. But most virtues aren’t easy, so I suspect that the trait has a deeper meaning. I believe that true kindness comes from the heart and should not be hampered by any expectation of results. Maybe the prickly person will mellow, maybe not. My kindness should not be conditional on what I receive back.
Faking kindness comes easily to me sometimes. Actually having a conversion of my heart towards a prickly person means I must cede control. I can acknowledge my distrust (as I do towards the porcupine baby in the photo) without forcing a smile. And I can continue trying to cultivate genuine kindness in my center.
It has taken me two days to think through an understanding of reverence, a listed virtue, and distinguish it from its cousin idolatry. These two words seem to be constantly mixed up, causing undue problems between people. I think that the photo above depicts reverence from my one year old self looking at my grandfather. Of course, I wouldn’t have known that word, but I am clearly giving him deep attention with affection.
In many different parts of the world, different images and symbols are treated with reverence, an attitude of deep respect and esteem. I think that this differs from worship which has a sense of deep devotion and often ritual observances to accompany the devotion. This continuum from reverence to worship seems to make many quick to label the devotion “idolatry,” which has a clearly derogatory meaning to it. For instance, in my Catholic faith, many revere Mary. This has caused some Protestants to say that the Catholic faith practices idolatry, worshiping Mary rather than her son Jesus. This joins a parade of ways people of different faiths deride others, often by misunderstanding their practices.
I would welcome the day that we could accept different patterns of reverence around the world without being so quick to label it idolatry. In one’s personal religion observances, one can decide who or what to worship. But may we respect that one woman’s reverence may be very different from our own. That is something that reading blogs from around the world has certainly taught me.
My maternal grandfather also was in the Army during World War I though he never left the United States. Here he stands in his uniform, a picture of constancy, a recognized virtue. But what distinguishes constancy from inflexibility? Why is one praised and the other criticized?
Reflecting on this pair of qualities, I decided that constancy has more to do with deep seated character rather than any particular action. A person with constancy remains predictable in her qualities such as kindness, compassion and forbearance. However, we would not expect her to always eat only turnips or only dress in purple. She could remain constant in her core but flexible in her choices. I expect her “I never would” statement might refer to never hitting her child. Meanwhile she might accept someone very different from herself when given the chance. She would be inflexible only if she said “I never would” talk to a Libertarian.
I have not heard constancy discussed much in recent years. The focus always seems to be on the new, the unique, the “cutting edge.” But what I value most in people is their steadfast character. Something we could all use a little more of in the United States at the moment!
Patience appears on many lists of virtues. I thought about the virtue of patience and the temptation of resignation when I considered the difference. Patience seems to me to have a hint of hope about it. We wait with calm and assurance when we are being patient. Perhaps the doctor is running late because she is taking extra time with the earlier patient. Perhaps the traffic is held up because a deer has been hit on the highway. We can settle into patience–with practice–when we have a reasonable expectation that eventually what we are waiting for will occur.
What about resignation? Resignation, I think, has a sour sense to it. There seems to be some sense of victimhood. We want sympathy for how long we had to wait, believing that it shouldn’t have happened to us. But “what are you going to do?” we ask sadly. Resignation also seems tinged with anger. It signals a giving up which seems different from acceptance. Somehow life has disappointed us once again we sigh resignedly.
There is an old joke that if you pray for patience you will be sure to receive numerous opportunities to practice it. I am not going to pray for patience, but I am going to try to practice waiting with more grace than I sometimes have. I am not, despite my best hopes, the center of the world. Many times I have to wait my turn! May I do so with patience.
Captain Robert Kenneth Lindsay
||Canadian Army Medical Corps
||No. 11 Field Ambulance
I never met my paternal grandfather since he died in 1930, but he served in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in France in the first world war as an ambulance worker. He was present at the terrible battle at Vimy Ridge, France where over 3000 Canadian soldiers died and over 7000 were injured. I cannot imagine viewing such carnage, particularly as a medic.
Today Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was at Vimy Ridge paying homage to the soldiers of that battle.
Although this is Armistice Day recognizing the 100th anniversary of the peace in Europe following World War 1, it seems that war rages on in the world. May we find some way beyond yelling, shaming and killing to settle our differences.
When I ran across “forbearance” in one list of virtues, I had to think about where I ever heard the word used. For years I had only heard it in terms of bank loans being cancelled. But such an old fashioned sounding word deserved deeper consideration, and I found the definition as “the quality of being patient and being able to forgive someone or control yourself in a difficult situation.” This certainly sounded like a challenging virtue.
I think I find it easier to pretend to control myself in a difficult situation while seething with resentment. Being patient and being able to forgive someone in a disagreement seems more difficult. I have heard resentment described as “anger with a history,” which aptly puts words to that lingering feeling seeking revenge or retribution. I put the picture of me mowing the lawn(without shoes–a dangerous practice) since I am smiling while I was typically completely uninterested in the lawn work. In fact, I imagine I resented having been taken from my reading to help in the yard. I could have used help in understanding that it is possible to do something one resists with patience.
Having spent some time with this virtue(two days in fact) I will remain attentive to the difference between forbearance and resentment. I hope to experience more of the first and less of the second!