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Posts Tagged ‘generosity’

I’m half-way through a lovely book by Leo Maasburg called Mother Teresa of Calcutta: A Personal Portrait.

maas

It’s an easy read, being simply a collection of anecdotes and stories. Here is the blurb:

Mother Teresa’s life sounds like a legend. The Albanian girl who entered an Irish order to go to India as a missionary and became an “Angel of the Poor” for countless people. She was greatly revered by Christians as well as Muslims, Hindus and unbelievers, as she brought the message of Christian love for one’s neighbor from the slums of Calcutta to the whole world.

Fr. Leo Maasburg was there as her close companion for many years, traveling with her throughout the world and was witness to countless miracles and incredible little-known occurrences. In this personal portrait of the beloved nun, he presents fifty amazing stories about her that most people have never heard, wonderful and delightful stories about miracles, small and great, that he was privileged to experience at Mother Teresa’s side. Stories of how, without a penny to her name, she started an orphanage in Spain, and at the same time saved a declining railroad company from ruin, and so many more.

They all tell of her limitless trust in God’s love, of the way the power of faith can move mountains, and of hope that can never die. These stories reveal a humorous, gifted, wise and arresting woman who has a message of real hope for our time. It’s the life story of one of the most important women of the 20th century as it s never been told before. Illustrated with photos.

This story really struck me, about the generosity of a newly married couple, told by Mother Teresa herself:

I never forget, some time ago, two young people came to our house and gave me lots of money. And I asked them, “Where did you get so much money?” And they said, “Two days ago we got married. Before marriage, we decided we will not buy wedding clothes. We will not have a wedding feast. We will give you that money.”

And I know in our country, in a Hindu family, what that means, not to have wedding clothes, not to have a wedding feast. So again I asked, “But why? Why did you do like that?” And they said, “We loved each other so much that we wanted to share the joy of loving with the people you serve.”

How do we experience the joy of loving? How do we experience that? By giving until it hurts. [p.68]

I’ve blogged before about the Wedding-Industrial Complex and the pressures on engaged couples to create the perfect wedding. This is such an impressive story because it is not about trying to fight the system for its own sake, but about being motivated by love to see things in a different perspective, and discover possibilities others would never have dreamed of. What a great way to start your marriage! (I hope/trust that the parents approved of the decision!)

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Following on from my previous post about how to prise a few pennies from my friends for good causes, Jonathan Ruffer writes here about the joy of giving.

[Last year Jonathan Ruffer paid £15 million to save 12 paintings by Francisco Zurbaran in Bishop Auckland castle. He plans to spend a further £18 million turning the castle into a centre re-telling the history of Christianity in the Northeast.]

Not many of us will have the problem of what to do with a great amount of wealth; but his thoughts about how to free oneself from the ‘burden’ of riches are a healthy challenge to any of us who have any savings stashed away for a rainy day.

The great calling to mankind is that we love one another, and it is in giving that we find its clearest expression. It is more blessed to give than to receive — and the reason is that ‘where your treasure is, there is your heart also’. We have the capacity to love — to have treasure — but we can’t be trusted to treasure the right thing. Personal giving releases our grasp on material things, and gives us compassion for people, and they become our treasure.

What does this mean in practice? There are only three things we can do with money — spend it, save it or give it away. For the rich, saving is more dangerous than the emptiness of spending: big money not only defines a person, it shackles him. We are not designed as creatures to store our wealth, or for that matter, our food. They are there to pass through, and if there is a blockage, the goodness turns to poison. Currency is a Miltonic word from the Latin, currere, to flow. So don’t hoard it — give it away!

And this has to be done by example. It’s no good a poor man telling a rich man to change his behaviour — he cannot match his words with actions. So it has to be the rich — the very rich — who must state this blindingly obvious truth if it is to have any force. But the words have no meaning without the action; it is the rich who have to give it away. And if their wealth is fabulous, that probably means most of it.

This sounds as much fun as Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or a Methodist sermon, but, believe me, it is the most wonderfully releasing thing — life as a colour film after black and white: life in all its abundance. If this sounds strange, it is worth remembering that wealth has all the character of a bully: whack it away, and it turns out to be a very insipid adversary. I know that at first hand! There is no sacrifice in it at all. I once asked one of the great northern wealth-creators why so few people followed his example of beneficence. His answer, with cheesy grin, was that people had no idea what fun it was. Saying boo to the bully is a great freedom, and keeps the money circulating.

In today’s world, a lot of good can come from this. One rich man giving it away has all the feel of a futile act, but it’s not. The demonstration of a truth always has power; moreover, it can show others the way. It is lack of imagination, not meanness, which shackles the common-or-garden multi-millionaire. Show a better way, and a trickle, perhaps a flood of givers will emerge, blinking from the dungeon darkness.

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I had a fascinating conversation with friends yesterday about money. I’m about to do an appeal for a charity I’m involved in, and I was asking their advice about the best way to go about this. Do I gently ask everyone on my email list if they’d like to help out with this worthy cause, and let them get back to me if they would? Do I just send them a link to the ‘donate’ website and hope for the best? Do I ask them, American-style, if they would like to pledge a certain amount – even before they have reached for their cheque-book – in the hope of encouraging them to make a commitment, and to solidify that commitment by telling me?

Lots of cultural and psychological issues come up here, and many of them touch on the strange nature of being English. Our awkwardness in talking about money – we hate to reveal our bank balance, our salary, our debts, our charitable giving – even to close and trusted friends. It’s just something you don’t do.

I was saying how much I admire the American instinct to praise, publicly, those who give generously to good causes. Yes, there are risks: it can encourage pride, jealously, etc. But why is it that we would happily praise those who give their time in volunteering, or their wisdom in teaching, or their patience in suffering, or their good example in leading – but we feel there is something rather grubby about putting the spotlight on someone’s generosity in giving some of their hard-earned cash, even if it is making a huge difference to the lives of others? My friends didn’t agree – they thought if you are going to give in this way you should do it humbly and quietly, without drawing attention to yourself, and without others giving you special attention. Of course I can see the truth in that, I just think there is something we are missing here.

These are just some of the questions that came up over coffee yesterday morning! Now I must work out what to do myself, and write the email appeal.

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Beneath the election froth, there is a genuine debate going on within British politics about the role of government, and particularly about the distinction between the state and civil society.

It’s not just David Cameron’s pitch for a ‘Big Society’. It connects with recent discussions about faith schools, adoption agencies, universities, the right of government to impose a particular form of sex education, and much more.

Is the government responsible, top-down, for every form of social provision? Is the relationship between government and the institutions of civil society one of ‘contracting out’ services that it cannot itself provide? Or are these civil institutions constitutive parts of society with their own particular motivations, purposes and values?

This is what the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales wrote in their recent document Choosing the Common Good:

Have we allowed ourselves to be seduced by the myth that social problems are for the government to deal with? Politics are important but there are always limits to what any government can achieve. No government can solve every problem, nor make us more generous or responsive to need. The growth of regulations, targets and league tables, which are tools designed to make public services accountable, are no substitute for actions done as a free gift because the needs of a neighbour have to be met.

Acts of willing generosity to help others are not taken because the rules and regulations say so, or because money can be made out of them. Both regulation by law and market forces have a role in modern society. But what has been increasingly overlooked is this third form of motivation, the offer of time, energy and possessions out of the spirit of good citizenship and genuine neighbourliness. If we are to have a society worth living in, this third form of motivation is crucial. Local institutions expressing good citizenship and neighbourliness, which are not beholden to the government, form a vital part of civil society. Without solidarity and the friendships that express it, many of those living alone – now Britain’s most common form of household – become still more lonely and isolated.

Many factors lie behind the decline in this spirit of solidarity of one with another, without which society starts to break down and life becomes intolerable. An excessive emphasis on each person simply pursuing their own interests is no doubt one such factor. This flows from a limited understanding of ourselves as human beings. Far from being self-contained individuals, we are, in truth, always mutually dependent. We are made for one another. This is verified by the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction we experience when we act in generosity and solidarity with those in need. We are not isolated individuals who happen to live side by side, but people really dependent on one another, whose fulfilment lies in the quality of our relationships. [p.7]

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Sometimes you hear this argument: Generosity, altruism, and self-giving are really just different forms of selfishness. Even if we are being truly generous, and making a real sacrifice in order to help someone else, the underlying motive will be one of the self-interest. Not because we are sly or manipulative, but simply because we are programmed to do what is ultimately in our best interests. This might include a degree of altruism, of caring for our family or friends, of going out of our way to help others. But deep down we are always thinking about what we will gain — even if that gain is the satisfaction of knowing that we are a noble person, or the pleasure of seeing other people given help.

There is some truth in this. It’s good to acknowledge that even when we do something for others, even when we are acting in a completely selfless manner, there is still an element of ‘myself’ involved. I am still choosing, freely, to do this deed. I am deciding, in some sense, that it is important to me, that I value what I’m doing. I can’t say ‘I don’t care about this’. The very fact that I want to give myself generously shows that I have an interest in giving myself — it matters to me. To this extent, there is no such thing as pure altruism. Put it another way: If I love someone, even by giving up everything for them, it is still because I love them. And if I choose to care for someone I do not love, it is still because I want to care for them.

But it’s not quite true to say that all self-giving is simply another form of selfishness — because it blurs some of the distinctions that we rightly make in ordinary life; distinctions that are crucial in moral thinking and in the choices we make about how to live. We come face to face with moments when we are called to be more generous than we have been, to put others first, to make a sacrifice that costs us some time or energy or personal satisfaction. Now and then we face a fork in the road, and we have to choose between selfishness or self-giving. We know they are not the same.

Yes, the self-giving needs to be a personal choice, it needs to be something I make a commitment to. In this sense it is still part of my own search for meaning and fulfilment. But it is nevertheless a kind of meaning and fulfilment radically different from the selfishness that seeks happiness locked up in one’s own introverted satisfactions. There is a selfishness which limits me and traps me; and there is another kind of self-concern that allows me to go beyond myself, that opens me up to others, and takes me beyond myself.

mother theresa kickin ass by messtiza.

I mention all this because yesterday evening I was in Kilburn with the Missionaries of Charity, the Sisters of Mother Theresa. During Mass in their convent chapel, three of the sisters renewed their religious vows. As well as taking the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, the Missionaries of Charity take an additional fourth vow. It goes something like this (I’m writing from memory): ‘I promise to give myself in wholehearted and free service to the poorest of the poor’.

What promise to make! A promise to make of one’s life a pure gift, to give oneself completely to those in most need, to those who will probably be unable to pay anything back. A promise to live for others in love. Of course, this has a religious meaning — it’s to do with knowing the love of Christ, and wanting to share that love with others. But even on a purely human or ‘philosophical’ level, it is a wonderful example of how self-giving is possible for the human person. Not a generosity that denies our own needs, but one which allows us to find a deeper kind of fulfilment in giving our lives joyfully for others. It’s a model not just for religious sisters, but for all of us.

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I gave a talk about friendship recently to a group of young adults in London. At the beginning I forced them to sit in silence for five minutes and think about their closest friends: how they met, why they stayed in touch, what they like about each other, why the friendship works, what they receive from the friendship, etc. It’s good to reflect like this now and then, it makes you more appreciative and grateful – but don’t do it too often! Even if you are really together in yourself and secure in your relationships, you will start to get paranoid, obsessing about whether you have any true friends, and why the person sitting next to you has twice as many as you do.

Aristotle is still the best place to start. If you have a few minutes, read through the wonderful Book Eight of the Nicomachean Ethics. [The translation by W.D. Ross is here; scroll to page 127.] And here is his Facebook page, just to prove that he could walk the walk as well as talk the talk:

Would you poke Aristotle? by Arbitrary.Marks.

Aristotle says that we have some friends because they are ‘useful’, and others because they are ‘pleasant’. This sounds a bit cold and calculating. But there is a simple truth here, behind the slightly stark language, which I think we all take for granted: That we enter into a friendship because we hope to receive something from it; we want to be with our friends for a reason; namely that there is some mutual benefit (we are ‘useful’ to each other’), or just the sheer joy of being with the other person (we ‘please’ each other). And in fact it would be a bit strange if I told you that I wasn’t better off for seeing you or had no desire to be with you.

‘Perfect friendship’, however, is between good people who seek what is truly good for each other. Yes, there will be much mutual gain, and much joy; but there is this extra element of selflessness, humility, and generosity – wanting what will truly help the other person to be who they are meant to be.

Aristotle draws the logical conclusions from this: It’s hard to be a good friend if you are not a good person yourself. To care for another person, to seek what is best for them, you have to have the inner resources to go beyond your own needs and desires and fears; you have to put them at the centre; you have to see them as someone worthy of love and kindness and not just as someone defined by what they bring to you. You have to see them, in other words, as a person in their own right and not just as a partner in a relationship. This isn’t possible if you are trapped in your own own selfishness. Or to put it more constructively, if you want to have good friends, and to be a good friend to others, then you should try to grow in goodness yourself. I’m not saying I am there yet; but I think Aristotle has the right idea.

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