The Meaning of Charity

Charity and benevolence,” writes Isabella Beeton, ”are duties which a mistress owes to herself as well as to her fellow-creatures; and there is scarcely any income so small, but something may be spared to it…  It is to be always remembered, however, that it is the spirit of charity which imparts to the gift a value far beyond its actual amount, and is by far its better part.”

The problem is, I’m not really sure what ‘charity’ means.  Well, in a literal sense I do (‘to help others less fortunate than yourself’).  But the word has a slightly superficial, do-gooding ring to it.  It makes a definable goodie-goodie virtue of something that should be an essential part of human nature, not something unique to and worth pointing about about the pro-actively good amongst us.

I don’t think of myself as an ‘uncharitable’ person.  But when I think back to what I’ve actually done (not just thought about doing) to help others in a meaningful sense over the past year, all that springs to mind are some random acts of kindness and a regular handing-over of change to street beggars. (In the past I used to think 50c was OK – I’d pass 3-4 beggars per day and thought this, plus the occasional food package, was more than enough.  ”Insulting and inconsequential”, my boyfriend said.  So now I make it €1, but still feel guilty about it not being enough.  What’s too little or too much? Is there such a thing?)

When I lived in Ukraine (I left in September 2008), I did a lot more and felt really good about it.  I think often about the food, money and medicine that my friend and I gave to a lame, very ancient widow who could only survive by begging in a central Kyiv metro station every day.  Then struggling home in the overwhelming summer heats or bitter knock-you-on-your-feet snowy blizzards of winter.

The monetary amount wasn’t especially huge in western terms, but to her it was enough for several months’ rent, food and clothing.  Temporary security, but an indescribable relief from waking at 5am and begging all day, with no bathroom breaks or food to fuel the awful 10-hours on her barely-clad feet.

At the time I was in a miserable situation – freshly escaped from the tail-end of an unsatisfyingly loveless relationship that I’d tried so hard to make work, and rather lost in such a foreign (in every sense) country with a job I didn’t particularly respect or like.  It seemed easier to see the misery of others when I was also miserable.  Helping them out of their misery became my way of being less miserable myself.

It shouldn’t be like that.

I’m determined to do more – sincerely more – to help others in any way I’m able to.  Life’s too short and there is a heck of a lot of need out there, in small ways and big.

More to the point, I’m going to stop talking and start doing.  I recently met a guy who, on a deeply-felt impulse to make a difference, jumped on a plane and headed to Rwanda. He’s now overseeing the building of a school and is the force behind numerous wonderful projects that are pulling his new community out of poverty and giving people a self-sufficiently better life.  I promised to take time to sponsor some children so they could go to school, something I haven’t yet had a chance to do (really, an embarrassment over not understanding all the German on the website, even after studying the language for so many years in school – albeit 14 years ago.  Ridiculous pride).

Tonight, I’m going to finally take care of this.

I’m determined that from now on, I must be more aware of and do more to help others.

I don’t need to be miserable to be a more-aware human being.

For anyone who would like to know more about the Rwandan project, the link is: (the site is in German)


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