Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Caritas in a world ruled by sin

Stanley Fish has a new column (click here to see it) that he devotes, in part, to describing the difficulties of charity when it comes, for example, to giving money to panhandlers:
If I don’t do anything, I feel guilty. If I reach into my pocket and hand over a few dollars, I feel guiltier. I thought for a while that the problem was the amount, so I started giving more, sometimes significantly more; but that only felt like an effort to buy my way out of an imbalance between what I had and what the objects (that’s the problem; I was making them [the homeless, the poor, et al.] into objects) of my largesse either lacked or had lost.

The accounts could never be squared. They would always be behind in resources, I would always be behind in the obligation to care for those less fortunate than I. I could just stop giving altogether, but that would seem even worse. Or I could give away all my earthly goods, but the hook of material possessions is too deeply in me for that. I could do more, but I could never do enough.
Fish goes on to relate this phenomenon with his study of 17th-century English literature (he himself is a specialist on John Milton). He notes that such poets as Andrew Marvell and George Herbert have noticed the same tendencies in their own writing. Instead of glorifying God--in the poems Fish refers to--these poets note the unrelenting resurfacing of the ego, of the selfishness that they believed inhered in their works.

Charity--or, to use a more laden word, caritas, or the unconditional love of others that is supposedly the essence of Christianity--exists, as Fish points out much more clearly than I am, in a world in which we are ever more inclined toward ourselves, to the exclusion of others.

In the case of the column I linked to, at issue was charitable giving (alms), but anything else that threatens to take us beyond ourselves and our own selfish desires can serve as an example. There's the old adage, for example, that "you always hurt the one you love."

The purest of emotions, the purest of acts, are nevertheless still impure in this world


Laura(southernxyl) said...

I used to see a lot of panhandlers in Memphis. There are a lot of drifters around here, probably b/c of the weather, but they must get by doing odd jobs and such; you rarely see them begging. In Memphis the panhandlers usually are clearly incapable of caring for themselves; you can tell this by looking, or after a brief conversation. I never felt like I by giving to them I was trying to catch them up, because what I had wasn't necessarily what they wanted. What they wanted, usually, was a full belly right then. More would have been a burden.

I think part of setting aside the ego is not assuming that the other person wants what you want, or even that he or she should want what you want. If the person tells you "I'm hungry" - which happened a lot in Memphis, and to which I always responded - and you give him lunch or dinner, that's enough - to take on guilty feelings because he doesn't have the overall quality of life you do is really a bit much, IMO.

I read about a ministry here in town, a few years ago, in which each month some volunteers treated the local homeless people to a foot washing and massage, and sock exchange. The RN who headed up the group took that opportunity to examine their feet for medical problems and transported the people to the ER if necessary. The article quoted one woman who'd had her feet washed, massaged with lotion, and powdered: "I feel like a princess." I think it's possible for people like Fish to kind of over-think this sort of thing by listing all of the needs these people have that this foot care isn't addressing; but I'll bet they overthink their own actions in this way, and wouldn't view the charitable actions of others as always insufficient.

theolderepublicke said...


Thanks for your comment!

I like what you said in your second paragraph, and I think that not assuming that the other person wants what you want, or should want it, is a step in setting aside the ego.

Fish, et, al (et me), probably do overthink such things, and probably the overthinking is itself a form of feeding the ego.

I guess what sometimes bothers me when it comes to giving to panhandlers is not the guilt by affluence that Fish wrote about, but the occasions of actual fear and, sometimes, even malice, I feel toward those who have less than I. Perhaps this is what underlies the guilt people feel and, instead of talking about that, it is easier to write what Fish did or to write what I did in the original post.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

Hm. Fear that they're going to harm you physically? Or something else? Malice - is that when they're obnoxious?

theolderepublicke said...


Thanks for the question. I was on vacation the last week or so and didn't have time to respond. All this to say that I might post on "fear and malice" shortly, because it's something I've been thinking about for a while.