On Walden Pond: Spend Yourself

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.

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11 thoughts on “On Walden Pond: Spend Yourself”

  1. Perhaps I'm wanting to transpose this too far, but couldn't you say, "More and more I'm becoming convinced that, when confronting [fill-in-the-blank], the
    issue is less about X than about relationships." 

    Building true relationships between ourselves and others is what God wants us to do.

    Thanks for this post, Richard.

  2. "[The eponymous protagonist of the novel, Robert Falconer] had little faith in societies, regarding them chiefly as a wretched substitute, just better than nothing, for that help which the neighbour is to give to his neighbour.  Finding how the unbelief of the best of the poor is occasioned by hopelessness in privation, and the sufferings of those dear to them, he was confident that only the personal communion of friendship could make it possible for them to believe in God.  Christians must be in the world as He was in the world; and in proportion as the truth radiated from them, the world would be able to believe in Him.  Money he saw to be worse than useless, except as a gracious outcome of human feelings and brotherly love.  He always insisted that the Saviour healed only those on whom his humanity had laid hold; that he demanded faith of them in order to make them regard him, that so his personal being might enter into their hearts.  Healing without faith in its source would have done tham harm instead of good - would have been to them a windfall, not a Godsend."

    George MacDonald

  3. Thanks for yet another great post. You always seem to connect with the things that are going on in my head, heart, and life. I'm wondering if you (or any others out there) have read Corbett and Fikkert's When Helping Hurts or if you've interacted at all with the idea of asset-based community development. I think there could be some interesting intersections between those and these kinds of ideas from Thoreau. Thoughts?

  4. Another great post, Richard. This is a very important lesson for us all to learn...and for our churches and NGOs. As usual, we can only really begin to understand the centrality of relationships in poverty by actually practicing it. Unfortunately, most of our systems are set up for efficiency and reserving the greater blessing of giving for ourselves rather than offering others the opportunity for relationships-- where we each give and take.

  5. And the same applies to missionary work, I think. Before people care what you know, they must know that you care. Relationships must be built however possible.

  6. I wonder how Thoreau, or Jesus, would re-write the missions principles and practises book based on how many churches in the West prop up missionaries with all the comforts of home (housing, plumbing, transportation, education, healthcare, spa weekends, birthday parties, domestic help, time away from the natives, etc.) when sending them out to '3rd world countries' to love and serve the poor? (Not all churches do this, their missionaries really do look and smell poor,) 

    Before I get killed please know I have struggled with Thoreau's and Jesus teachings for a long time. I have been blessed by more handouts than I deserve and know the emptiness and shame when I have failed to live up to expectation s to pull myself up by my bootstraps and have a better faith that Jesus will provide. Guilt is compelling. The entitlement we are taught about on earth exists in a parallel universe to the entitlement and universe Jesus teaches us about,

    Handouts are short-lived when there is no consistent relational connection between the hand that is full and the hand that is empty. That is one of the most difficult lessons in life to swallow. And if the handout is really just a bribe to get to know Jesus and obey Apostle Paul better AND start being a regular church goer, it is, possibly, a lesson best ignored.  

    Thanks for these stirrings on Thoreau, Richard, and for the book recommend. Am glad we can get in here!

  7. If we think of Charity in more generalized terms of "giving," it would then follow, perhaps, that we would want to give to the poor or others that which is most valuable - our humanity: the reality of ourselves as broken, subjective, time-oriented people. We offer our brokenness, our limitedness, and our time; it is indeed, a veritable "spending ourselves" as Thoreau says. That is the most precious thing we have, and it can be our most precious gift. Thanks for the valuable reflections on such an important work.

  8. I like to imagine what a conversation between Alexander Campbell and Henry Thoreau would have sounded like. For both, "simplify, simplify, simplify" would have given them some common ground if they'd chosen to stand there and talk. And in their own parallel if not intersecting times & seasons, they would have been responding to many of the same social pressures when they turned to seek simplicity as a response to modernity.

  9. Isaiah 58 asks us to do exactly as Thoreau suggests. "Spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed..."

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