Charity - Jessamyn
Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Old clothes bagged up for Goodwill. A coin tossed into a Salvation Army bucket. A half-eaten sandwich given to a bedraggled man or woman with a cardboard sign, standing by the highway with a big foam cup full of gas station soda.
These are the images I associate with the word “charity”.
Beyond this, “charity” has a bureaucratic kind of feel, like the word “help” — some nebulous safety net for the poor, stuffed away in desks and drawers to be pulled out when the appropriate paperwork is turned in.
Maybe, if you’re familiar with the Greek words for love, you like the Greek “agape” better — a beautiful word — if it doesn’t remind you of a Christian counseling center or some hippie commune.
I used to be a bit curmudgeonly about the word “charity.” I didn’t want any “love is a choice” kind of love. I didn’t want any sympathy friendship.
Now, life has humbled me a bit and I’d be glad to be the recipient of charity — BLESSED is the recipient of charity — because a drop of charity is like a drop of God.
I won’t try to describe charity to you: I will just say that it is beautiful, and that there is a kind of ache in it, because there is almost always a relinquishment inherent in it.
There are glimpses of charity, in stories.
I first heard “The Cookie Thief” when I was a teenager, and I began to pine for something I had forgotten or lost.
“The Giving Tree” made me feel the same way. The book is controversial; we live in an age of boundaries, of reciprocity, of self-love. But — the tree, I would argue — is no victim, no doormat — she is not afraid of the boy, not manipulated by him — she simply loves the boy, and so, she gives.
I have had glimpses of this kind of love from others: I get in misanthropic moods — all convoluted and bitter inside — and a drop of charity can instantly turn my cold, stony heart human again.
But too often, I have despised or ignored someone’s drop of charity — too proud, too dull, too blind.
More rarely: I find that I am able to love someone this way, and I have a vision of someone’s personhood and beauty, and affection comes naturally and automatically and it doesn’t matter if the person reciprocates or not.
People always talk like the love of a mother for her children is the most selfless kind. Maybe this is true. But it’s not automatic. (A sentimental view of motherhood is not helpful for those in the throes of it.)
The other day I heard Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I Always Heard it Should Be” on the radio. It’s a song I’ve heard many times, but this time, a few lines struck me in a new way:
“Their children hate them for the things they’re not;
They hate themselves for what they are…”
I let my mind go there, to a dark, fearful place: If someday my children hate me for “the things [I’m] not,” what would those things be?
Would they hate me for making messy, sloppy-looking cupcakes instead of beautifully decorated ones?
Would they hate me for being bad at sports?
For being technologically un-savvy?
For not wearing sparkly princess shoes?
They may hate me for any of these reasons, or for many more like them, but — most likely — if my children hate me someday, it will be because my “love” was selfish — because I failed to love them for themselves, for their own humanity and personhood.
To love with true charity requires a touch of detachment — that is, detachment from the other’s opinion of me, from my need for reciprocation— and detachment is hard because some of us are needy human beings, going around asking all kinds of desperate questions in our heads.
The good news is that I don’t have to feel what I should feel in order to begin to practice charity. As all the books that I used to hate say, feeling tends to follow action; thinking of charity as a practice takes the pressure off.
Jessamyn is a writer and musician living with her ridiculous husband and four odd children in Walden, Tennessee. Her interests are legion and include falling asleep to Trollope and playing music in downtown Chattanooga on the weekends. Nonfiction.