ESOCIETY *SPARK-ONLINE VERSION 22.0
where does charity begin? and end?

by jim pinto

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By world standards, most of the people reading these webzine columns are wealthy. So, given that we have more than most, how much should we give as charity? And is our giving obligation, goodwill or guilt?

Perhaps I have an unusual perspective because I was born in India and grew up with beggars on the street—people in various states of distress who intruded to solicit alms. Sometimes we gave them a couple of coins, but most often we ignored them. Indeed, they were so much a part of the scenery that I really didn't notice them until much later, when I returned from abroad. Only then did I really see the old familiar faces of beggars that I had known since boyhood. I doubt if they knew me, because they gave me the same blank stare that they give any prospective donor. Perhaps I was noticed a bit more because I now had the aura of a more susceptible foreigner.

When I started giving out the equivalent of nickels, my mother warned me to limit my benevolence to the norms. I wondered what she meant till I was overwhelmed by a persistent following, including some who had already received their alms just minutes before. They were simply testing the limits of my foreign naiveté. Evidently, word had spread via the local grapevine. When I ventured out the next day, a beggar's brigade greeted me. Indeed, I had to end up being quite rude, to escape their attention.

The situation is not different in the U.S., where I live now. Once you give to any charity, you become a marketing target for those who know that you are indeed a donor. You are inundated with junk mail and telephone soliciting which you have to fight off and discard until you eventually dwindle to the status of a bad prospect.

So, what exactly is charity? Is it an obligation, or does it stem from guilt? How much should I give and to who? And, who sets the parameters—Religion? Society? Family? Relatives? Country club? Should I heed the pleas of the preacher, or simply keep up with the Joneses?

Religion is always the first bastion of benevolence. Who better to set the ground rules than the links with the Almighty? You go to church to feel holy, and peer pressure takes over—if your neighbor puts some coins in the plate, why not trump that with paper money? If they have already papered the plate, no one will notice your $10 bill, so it may be better to put in a few dollar bills instead.

The salesman—uh, the pastor or rabbi—takes care to present both sides of the argument: if you give more, you'll receive more; if you don't, then your selfishness will get what it deserves. To test your giving to the limit, you are advised to give till it hurts. To make it easy for you (and consistent for the bookkeeper) tithing was invented—give a percentage of your earnings, and in return you will receive the maximum blessings, a good investment.

If you don't go to church, then this secular society has a plethora of possibilities to clear your conscience or goad your guilt.

You can donate to United Way, or the Salvation Army, or the Y—secure in the knowledge that your giving is in good hands and indeed is tax deductible. You can melt when you see the pitiful pictures of poor orphans in some far away place and hear Sally Struthers's plea for your generosity to help them survive for another day. Does charity apply to humans only? How about those poor cats and dogs in the animal shelter? Perhaps children should be first; but would a starving adult be more deserving than a not-so-starving child?

Perhaps you should know exactly how much of your donation actually goes to those orphans after the marketing and administrative salaries have been paid and the expenses for TV advertising and sales brochures have been deducted. Ask your favorite charity for that percentage. You will be surprised.

Most charities take care to remind you that your gift is tax deductible. Does that encourage you to give more, or does it discount the value of your giving? Donating your time or giving to the homeless in the street is indeed charity—but it cannot really be documented and is not tax deductible.

The old adage—charity begins at home—is a good starting point. Does that mean just your immediate family, or should it include relatives and their extended dependents? Should you give more to the ones in need, or distribute your largesse evenly?

And where is home? Is it my neighborhood, or the huddled homeless in the seedy part of town? Should I help the earthquake victims in El Salvador first, because they are nearer to where I live now? Or should my first allegiance be to the Indians in Ahmedabad because of my origin? If I can afford it, why not help both? I'm supposed to give till it hurts. So, how much should I hurt?

Some people seem to advertise their public donations to music and the arts—though, I don't personally see how helping to pay the salary of the cellist should be considered charity—if the ardent patrons of the arts needs so badly to hear the symphony, let them simply pay more for their tickets!

Cynics point out that charity brings its own reward. The good feeling you get when you serve the needy is itself the benefit you derive. Anyone who has his or her name advertised as the benefactor of the new library or hospital wing already receives the benefit of recognition. Let's not call it charity and make it tax deductible in the bargain.

I have come to the conclusion that charity is only charity when you give goods, services or money without personal gain, benefit or recognition of any kind. True charity is anonymous. It begins and ends within your self.

Copyright 2001 Jim Pinto. All Rights Reserved.

Jim Pinto
San Diego, CA.
jim@jimpinto.com

 

 

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