Mother Teresa, M.L.K. Jr., and Gandhi stand out as a few of the most influential conduits of charity to the 20th century world. Though not perfect, such philanthropic leaders, whether bringing material or spiritual or ethical goods to many people, are recognized by general consensus to have brought an outsized proportion of good to the world. These very names evoke ideas of kindness, justice, mercy, generosity, and humility and serve as historical examples of light in a dark world.
Inevitably, we less public and more ordinary men and women think along the lines of “I’m no saint – I could never be a Mother Teresa”, and we quickly discount our capacity to do as much good for the world as any of these public philanthropists. However, we often mean, not that we can’t be charitable, but that we can never embrace so radical and public a ministry. That much is likely true; you are statistically not going to make the history books.
A Change of Perspective
One might think that the greatest good one can do is that which benefits the most amount of people. This is a very utilitarian and persuasive idea. The conclusion of such an idea is that the great philanthropists, teachers, and public figures have done the most good of all. All we ordinary folk must think to ourselves at some point, “Who am I to change the world?” But this idea deserves to be challenged.
To many beneficiaries of these public figures, the good imparted to them is but a small part of their worlds. Said another way, to the average student of a great teacher, or the receiver of some gift from a philanthropist, the giver and his gifts are likely but a small part of the receiver’s world. However, every ordinary man may indeed share the same opportunity and capacity to do good as the great philanthropist, albeit in a quantitatively smaller, but perhaps no less significant way. The philanthropist is but a small part in the mind of many people around the world, but the ordinary man demonstrating extraordinary kindness may best the philanthropist by improving the whole world of a single neighbor. The ordinary man demonstrating extraordinary kindness may rest in obscurity to the world, but may indeed be all the world to his neighbor.
This way of thinking about our human agency – that what is small in the world may be great to a single soul – is a critical part of motivating an apathetic people with a mere change of perspective. The greatest thing one can do is to live a life of charity using whatever gifts a man or woman has been given, and lucky for all, the opportunities for our charity are everywhere and unending.
A Different Kind of Poverty
In first world countries, we are all too convinced that those in need of charity are few and far between, with half of them bound for destitution despite all material charity. This last point is not a condemnation of those who think so, as it is undeniable that poverty exists even where we are certain none can exist. Some indeed choose poverty. Nonetheless, the prime sin of the first world countries is not that we think the poor cannot be helped, it is that we are fixated only on this material poverty, neglecting that there is far more to charity than what we can count in dollars or weigh in pounds. No nation is without a poverty of love for neighbor. No nation is too full of people who see each other as fully human. None are without need of another prayer. Material charity is only a small thing. Treating those who are poor in friendship, hope, and love is a far greater charity, and one that all people, no matter how rich or poor, can offer at all moments of a day. How often do we fear even to meet eyes with a stranger, the smallest act in the recognition of their humanity?
We often subconsciously believe we must be good before we can be charitable – that we must fundamentally change in a mysterious way that will magically orient our wills toward what is good and charitable. Likewise, we may believe that being a victim of some social or inner malady frees us from the call to do what is good and charitable. Everyone is a victim in some way in this 21st century. Neither one’s sins nor their victimhood frees them from the call to do what is good and charitable; all have some gift, no matter how small, to share.
Often, to be charitable, we must first believe we can be generous. As mentioned already, the phrase “I’m no saint…” is often uttered as a justification for why we cannot be good. But this little phrase is a dangerous, self-fulfilling creation disguised as humility. To admit one is not a saint, is no different than uttering “I’m bound for Hell,” for saints are merely those destined for Heaven. What we really mean when we say “I’m no saint” is not that we think we are truly destined an eternity apart from God, but that we are not perfect and that this imperfection hinders our ability to do what is right. The mistake is in conflating sainthood with perfection. Even after his conversion, St. Augustine was still not perfect. The saints we recognize today were still sinners, albeit sinners who continually came back to Christ. The twelve apostles were not perfect, yet still they were entrusted by Jesus to do his will and bring the gospel message to the world. Likewise, we cannot expect to first become perfect before committing ourselves to doing good. Rather, it is by first committing ourselves to the good that we approach perfection.
We make many excuses for our failures in doing what is right, what is just, what is charitable, but often these excuses are born from a defeatist attitude, fear, and sloth. Our ties to family at home, our lack of extraordinary wealth, and our limited experience of the world are no hindrances to doing great works of kindness in the world, even if it seemingly only affects a small part of the larger world. Too often, young people dream of “changing the world” and embarking on grand schemes to achieve such a change, when their goal can be so readily achieved with much less effort – yet greater outcomes – by shrinking the target of the “world” to that of their own neighborhood.
There is the famous problem of the “Ship of Theseus”, whereby a famed ship of war was kept on the Greek docks for centuries through constant repair and replacement of its parts. The dilemma is deciding at which point this historic ship becomes a different ship. Few would argue it is no longer the same ship after one plank of the deck is replaced, but many might say it is a different ship if all its parts have been replaced one-by-one. Luckily, in the world of charity, there is a very different dynamic. Like the butterfly affect, whose wings flapping could lead to a hurricane on the other side of the globe, so any one small act of kindness does change the world in an instant. By every act of good, we quantitatively (if such a thing could be measured) do make the world better, and we disproportionately make the world better for the receiver of our kindness.