Tag Archives: charity

Thoughts on “Strangers Drowning” by Larissa MacFarquhar

This is the latest book that I read for the book club to which I belong. It’s a look at people who dedicate themselves to doing the most good that they can possibly do, often sacrificing their own happiness and well-being, as well as that of their families, for the sake of assisting complete strangers. MacFarquhar refers to this type of people as do-gooders.

She begins the book with her definition of a do-gooder.

This book is about a human character who arouses conflicting emotions: the do-gooder. I don’t mean a part-time, normal do-gooder—someone who has a worthy job, or volunteers at a charity, and returns to an ordinary family life in the evenings. I mean a person who sets out to live as ethical a life as possible. I mean a person who’s drawn to moral goodness for its own sake. I mean someone who pushes himself to moral extremity, who commits himself wholly, beyond what seems reasonable. I mean the kind of do-gooder who makes people uneasy.

(p. 3)

So why would a person who wants only to do good in the world make others uncomfortable? That’s a legitimate question, which MacFarquhar also addresses early in the book.

One reason may be guilt: nobody likes to be reminded, even implicitly, of his own selfishness. Another is irritation: nobody likes to be told, even implicitly, how he should live his life, or be reproached for how he is living it. And nobody likes to be the recipient of charity. But that’s not the whole story.

(p. 6)

The rest of the book explores the personal stories of various altruistic do-gooders—their motivations, challenges, and so forth. They are all really interesting, and many are inspiring, but when MacFarquhar examined social workers, it hit a little close to home for me.

At first the social worker may become too emotionally involved with his clients, so that when they fail he suffers, both because they are unhappy and because their failure is his failure, too. It’s hard to spend his days confronting devastating problems that he cannot fix—the misery and helplessness rub off on him.

Gradually, he learns to be more detached. He realizes that he needs to be tough, and to develop a thick skin. But if he becomes too detached, he stops caring about his clients at all.

(p. 163)

Many years ago, when I decided to go to college in my late 20s as a non-traditional student, I intended to go into counseling. As I started taking my basic required classes, I also took on a part-time job as a mental health technician in the chemical dependency ward at a local hospital. I had a strong desire to help people, and the primary residents in this program were pregnant teenage girls addicted to crack cocaine, so there was no shortage of suffering individuals to whom I could offer help. But the turning point for me was when one young woman completed the 28-day program, was released, went to a crack house, and got shot in the stomach. Her baby died inside of her. I had gotten to know this person fairly well during her four weeks there, and I was devastated. The pain and sadness were so intense, I realized that I could not do this job with the level of detachment needed to be effective, and maintain my levels of compassion and empathy for others. I decided then and there that I would need to pursue a different career path.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book. Not only is it thought provoking, it is very well written. It challenged me to look at how much I am doing for the overall good of the world, and how much more I could possibly do.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading challenging stuff.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 7” by Lao Tzu

TaoTehChing

Heaven lasts long, and Earth abides.
What is the secret of their durability?
Is it not because they do not live for themselves
That they can live so long?

Therefore, the Sage wants to remain behind,
But finds himself at the head of others;
Reckons himself out,
But finds himself safe and secure.
Is it not because he is selfless
That his Self is realised?

It’s kind of an oxymoron that self-realization only occurs when you shut off your self-importance and self-obsession. You must lose the ego in order to find your true self.

This makes me think of the spiritual principles of charity, compassion, empathy, and service. When you turn away from the cycle of chasing after personal gains and shift your focus to things outside yourself, something happens internally. There is a spiritual kindling and you realize that you are more than just your self; you are part of a larger whole that existed before you were born and will exist after you are gone. And you become aware of a deeper meaning to your existence. I think this is the key to finding meaning and fulfillment in your life.

In our crazy lives, it is increasingly difficult to step outside our small world of the self. But doing so is of utmost importance, especially in these turbulent times.

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Filed under Literature, Spiritual

“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Experience

HolyThur-SOE

Blake wrote two versions of “Holy Thursday,” one for the Songs of Innocence and this one for the Songs of Experience. (Click here to read my thoughts on “Holy Thursday” from the Songs of Innocence.) Both poems deal with the issue of poverty and how it affects children, and while both provide social criticism, they do so from very different perspectives.

Is this a holy thing to see,
In a rich and fruitful land,
Babes reducd to misery,
Fed with cold and usurous hand?

Is that trembling cry a song?
Can it be a song of joy?
And so many children poor?
It is a land of poverty!

And their sun does never shine.
And their fields are bleak & bare.
And their ways are fill’d with thorns
It is eternal winter there.

For where-e’er the sun does shine,
And where-e’er the rain does fall:
Babe can never hunger there,
Nor poverty the mind appall.

In Catholic tradition, Holy Thursday is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. Since the last supper was Jesus’ observance of the Passover Seder, which recounts the Hebrews’ release from the bondage of slavery, there is a dark irony here as Blake incorporates imagery of hunger and subjugation. The church, an institution that is supposed to carry on the traditions and teachings of Christ, instead grudgingly offers meager charity to the poor and starving children with “cold and usurious hand,” all the while viewing themselves as holy and charitable.

For me, the stark difference between this poem and the one from Songs of Innocence is the tone. This is an angry poem, seething with indignation. The poet’s view, no longer tainted by innocence, only sees the bare suffering that poverty inflicts upon poor children. He questions why in a land of abundance we allow those who are less fortunate to suffer, and I personally feel that this question is relevant today. How can we, as a society, tolerate children going without food when we have the resources to alleviate their suffering? It is a question we need to ask ourselves, because there are a lot of children who go to sleep hungry every night.

Blake states strongly: “It is a land of poverty!” This is a powerful statement. It is not material or economic wealth that makes a society prosperous; It is how a society cares for its people that determines whether that society is prosperous or not. A society, just like a chain, is only as strong as its weakest link, and allowing poverty to exist only weakens the social fabric.

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“Holy Thursday” by William Blake: From Songs of Innocence

HolyThur-SOI

Twas on a Holy Thursday their innocent faces clean
The children walking two & two in red & blue & green
Grey-headed beadles walkd before with wands as white as snow,
Till into the high dome of Pauls they like Thames waters flow

O what a multitude they seemd these flowers of London town
Seated in companies they sit with radiance all their own
The hum of multitudes was there but multitudes of lambs
Thousands of little boys & girls raising their innocent hands

Now like a mighty wind they raise to heaven the voice of song
Or like harmonious thunderings the seats of Heaven among
Beneath them sit the aged men wise guardians of the poor
Then cherish pity, lest you drive an angel from your door

I confess that when I read this, I was lost as to the meaning of the poem, mainly because I had absolutely no idea what Holy Thursday was. So I did a quick search and discovered that Holy Thursday, in Catholic tradition, is the Thursday before Easter when Jesus held the last supper. At that point, the poem began to make sense to me.

The scene that Blake describes seems innocent enough, but as is the case with most poems in The Songs of Innocence, there is a sense that below the surface, something is wrong. In this case, it is the hypocrisy of the church. The children are paraded into St. Paul’s cathedral in a display of charity and kindness, but it is really just a show and does not appear to be genuine. The children are poor and probably homeless, which can be determined by the fact that Blake points out in the first line that their faces are clean, implying that this is not how they normally appear. I got the impression that to show how charitable the church is, they cleaned and fed a group of homeless children just to show them off.

At the end of the poem, Blake entreats the church elders to practice what they preach, to have pity on the poor, hungry children who crowded London’s streets and to not drive them from their door, but instead offer them comfort and food. Just as Christ fed the poor and starving, so should the church.

Once I was in a car with a co-worker going out for dinner, which was being paid for by the company we worked for. On the corner was a homeless person with a sign begging money for food. The person I was with callously yelled out, “Get a job!” I lost all respect for that person. I understand that you cannot give to every starving person, but you can at least have sympathy for those who are less fortunate. And that is the message in this poem: cherish pity. You may not be able to help everyone who needs help, but at least have compassion for another human who is suffering.

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