Toward the end of Chapter One of Walden Thoreau shares some reflections about charity.
Page after page, as we have been reviewing in these posts, Thoreau preaches about the virtues of simplicity. The first chapter of Walden is entitled "Economy" after all. And Thoreau discusses at great length how we can live and enjoy life with less.
But in the concluding pages of this chapter Thoreau turns to address questions about charity. Thoreau seems keen to address various criticisms he's heard coming from some within the Concord community. It seems that some had suggested that Thoreau, in living upon less, had turned his back on philanthropy. I'm guessing that wealthy townspeople were justifying themselves in the face of Thoreau's experiment by pointing out that their excess cash allowed them to help the poor. Thoreau, by contrast, could do no such thing. So who was living more virtuously? The reclusive writer sitting in his small cabin? Or the wealthy philanthropist who gave alms to the poor?
Who helps the poor more? The Thoreau-inspired hippie or the businessman? It's an interesting question. But I don't want to get into all that. I'd like, instead, to share something from Thoreau that I think we all should hear.
First, in reflecting on how charity is typically done Thoreau has this to say:
If I knew for a certainty that a man was coming to my house with the conscious design of doing me good, I should run for my life.I think we understand what Thoreau is reacting to. There is much within charity that is presumptuous, meddling, demeaning, humiliating, or simply ineffective. Charity is often done for the person giving, usually to assuage their conscience, than for the person on the receiving end.
This isn't to say that Thoreau rejects acts of charity. He's just suspicious of do-gooderism. But if a life of charity comes from a deep place within our souls, Thoreau says, with no small admiration, go for it:
But I would not stand between any man and his genius; and to him who does this work, which I decline, with his whole heart and soul and life, I would say, Persevere, even if the world call it doing evil, as it is most likely they will.So all in all, while Thoreau was suspicious of charity, he didn't have a wholly dim view. But does he have any positive advice for us? He does. This is the quote I really wanted to share:
If you give money, spend yourself with it, and do not merely abandon it to them.This is the advice that I think everyone should hear, no matter your politics and views about charity. What Thoreau is saying is this, charity has to be relational. It's not just the privileged giving to the underprivileged. The rich giving alms to the poor. Charity shouldn't be an economic transaction. We should, rather, seek to "spend ourselves."
More and more I'm becoming convinced that, when confronting poverty, the issue is less about economics than about relationships. Rather than thinking about charity we should be thinking about friendship.
This isn't, of course, to say we shouldn't worry about socioeconomic injustices and inequities. It is, rather, to say that when we come to people as anonymous do-gooders the people we are trying to help are likely to be as tempted as Thoreau was to make a run for it. Who wouldn't? Again, there is much within charity that can be demeaning and humiliating. Only true friendship with the poor will help us see the inhumanity in our well-intentioned acts of charity. Because, as many of you know, the rich often presume to know what the poor "need" and what is "best" for them. There is a knowledge and empathy disjoint that gets in the way. This gap of understanding can only be bridged by friendship. And friendship means, as Thoreau noted, spending ourselves.
Let me be very confessional. I'm just beginning to learn this lesson. I'm preaching at myself in this post. But I'm starting to place myself, more and more often, in places where people don't look like me. Ethnically, academically, socioeconomically. My hope, as times goes on, is that friendships will bloom from these repeated encounters. I pray that I'll learn to spend myself. That I'll learn to be a friend.
A good book to start thinking along these lines is Friendship at the Margins.