Compassion Around the Clock and the Calendar

The urge toward generosity and compassion tends to emerge from its hiding places late in the year, bursting into public view around Thanksgiving and Christmas. Public displays of charity abound around the holidays. In my experience, these visible expressions of benevolence are subject to a wide spectrum of judgments by observers—including me—of the acts. On one end, these acts of kindness are viewed as shining examples of decency and humanity; other the other, they are seen as self-serving deeds undertaken not much to help those in need as to verify the “goodness” of the generous actor.  The latter, of course, is the position of the skeptic; the cynic whose faith in humankind is weak, at best. The former is the perspective of the person who sees the world through a glass that is at least half-full.

As is so often the case with me, I take both positions. My assessment is based not so much on actions taken near year-end as it is on the degree to which behaviors around the holidays mirror practices during the rest of the year. And my perspective is shaped, in part, by the extent to which generosity and compassion are expressed in purely monetary, transactional terms versus true engagement. If the generosity I witness is strictly seasonal, I tend to fall into the same category as the skeptic; if, on the other hand, the acts of compassion take place year-round, my appreciation for humanity blossoms.  My cynicism peeks its head out of my brain when I witness benevolence that involves only the checkbook—and not the investment of time and effort. But I become more the optimist when I see actions that suggest a person is willing to engage personally in providing support to others in need.

Yet many reasons exist for those differences, often negating judgments about the depth of a person’s commitment to generosity and compassion. Some people, for example, have physical restrictions that prevent them from doing the heavy work of non-financial support. Or they may have external constraints placed upon them; access to transportation, demands on their time in support of family and friends in need, etc., etc. Those obstacles to hands-on involvement often are not visible to the judgmental observer, like me, suggesting the judges ought to leave their robes in the closet. Yet, still, I don mine too often.

When I see evidence of goodness and generosity—whether through gifts of time or money or materials—around the holidays, I like what I see. But what I really appreciate and admire are clues that a person’s compassion operates year-round. For example, people who donate financial support every week or every month. Or people who prepare and/or serve meals to the hungry. Or people who volunteer to read to children who need help learning. Or people who spend time with people who are alone, but who should feel wanted and valued.

Ever since I began the relationship with my IC, I have seen evidence of year-round generosity. For example, we recently were in a restaurant having breakfast when she observed a young couple nearby; something about them suggested to her that breakfast paid for by a stranger would brighten their day, so she picked up their tab. And, when we were combining our households, rather than sell some valuable furniture, she gave it to someone who had recently emerged from rehab and was in need of support to make a go of his second chance. And she gave duplicates of expensive kitchen appliances to a couple who was struggling financially.

My observations of my IC are not the only ones that strengthen my confidence that real generosity exists all around me. Recently, a friend read about a group of people who made a practice of going to a restaurant for an inexpensive meal and paying with a $100 bill—and leaving the balance of the payment as a tip. She decided to adopt and adapt the idea, with the support of other friends. This same friend has a history of preparing and serving meals to the hungry, committing time and energy at least once a week to that act of kindness.

And, of course, I see evidence of benevolence every week at my church, when members of the congregation offer money to the church’s “share the plate” program, whereby money collected is contributed to a different charity every month.

As I mull over these matters, I wonder how often the assessment that some people give  out of an interest in verifying their “goodness,” is legitimate. The more I think about it, the more I think people give because they want to do good, not because they want to be appreciated for their generosity. Whether their gifts are frequent or not and whether their contributions are purely transactional or not, they simply want to do good. Maybe part of their motives are to feel good about themselves; so what? Maybe that’s exactly what they need and maybe, just maybe, allowing them that self-serving generosity is an act of kindness in and of itself.

People who have read my blog for long probably recognize that I sometimes use it as a means of  deciding what I think about a subject. I “argue” with myself in some form or fashion, hoping to come to a firm conclusion about the topic of the moment. This post is one such incident. Thinking on the matter of generosity and benevolence, I’ve softened quite a bit. And I’ve come to the conclusion that the ways I help other people, whatever those ways are and whenever I provide my help, are okay. Maybe I do it to feel good about myself. Maybe I do it purely out of compassion. Maybe it’s a bit of both. Regardless, the ultimate objective is to spread human decency around, so that knowledge of the fact that others care is of comfort. So…what began as a treatise questioning the validity of some holiday-based “giving” has changed its course. I guess I’m flexible. Some would call it wishy-washy. I think I’ve simply allowed myself to think, with some focus and intent, about a topic that matters to me. And thinking has solidified my perspective. At least a little.

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Thank you, by the way, to everyone who regularly or only occasionally provides gifts of money or time or anything else to people who need the help and need to be acknowledged and appreciated.

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In spiritual maturity, the opposite of injustice is not justice but compassion.

~ Charlotte Joko Beck, in Nothing Special: Living Zen ~

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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2 Responses to Compassion Around the Clock and the Calendar

  1. Meg, you are among the handful of people I know of who dedicate truly significant amounts of time AND money to do good work. That’s one of the reasons I–and everyone else in church who knows you–admire you.

  2. Meg Koziar says:

    I like your blog today, John. The suject is one I have mulled for awhile. Our church is good generous about giving money, but only a few are helping directly, and that I admire. I used t be mong them, but now I can only write checks that support the hands on qork. Meg

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