For International Day of Charity, 5 September 2020
We have all heard the self-evident saying that ‘charity begins at home’. Obviously, it is important to protect ourselves because, otherwise, how could we expect to help anyone else? Yet this plea for self-care is often used with more sinister intent.
‘Charity begins at home’ – I often see this comment on social media regarding foreign aid or immigrants or refugees: send them back, we should look after ourselves first, charity begins at home. These people often argue that Australia has its own homeless and poor, and we should be looking after those people first (funny how none of those critics actually does anything to help the homeless, eh?)
I do not dispute the profound underlying wisdom behind the idea that ‘charity begins at home’ because I understand that a compassionate, altruistic perspective must first arise within each of us, wherever we may find our heart or hearth. What I do dispute is the hijacking of that maxim by some people who use it to justify their own dismissive lack of compassion for others. I believe that humans are better than that. In my experience:
1. “Charity begins at home” does not mean that it ends there as well.
When the chips are down, some Australians can be remarkably compassionate people. During times of flood, drought and bushfire, communities come together to work for the common good, and discussions about the ordinary and the everyday suddenly appear bland and trite by comparison. We see ourselves as part of a unified human community.
I will never forget the 2004 Asian Boxing Day tsunami, in which hundreds of thousands of people died and local communities were devastated across Asia. In response, Australians figuratively fell over themselves to offer material and financial support. I recall some people in my suburb who donated sacrificial amounts of money to charity; while Aussie ‘hands-on’ organisations offered practical help to Asian communities and built international support networks. I did volunteer work for one charity, within a borrowed telemarketing centre, and we were swamped with non-stop phone calls from donors.
This is the Australia – and the world – that we need to see, today and every day: people displaying compassion, kindness, and selflessness. Whether the 2020 Australian bushfires, the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign, the 1992 AIDS Awareness Concert, the 1985 Live Aid appeal, or the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, altruism is a common human trait. Outside of fundraising, pragmatic altruism (voluntary work) is also common. Amidst such nobility, the idea that ‘charity begins at home’ – when used to deny help to others who need it – appears to be small-minded, selfish and unworthy of human dignity.
2. Charity is not a competition.
In my experience, genuinely kind people never make compassion a competition. People are free to devote their time, money and efforts to help anyone they choose – and due to limited resources, we all make such choices – but truly compassionate people would never dismiss or demean the genuine needs of others outside their purview.
Can you imagine someone visiting a charity and pointedly telling staff that another charity is more deserving of assistance? No. Why? Because at best, that would be somewhat insensitive. Why then, do some people think it is acceptable to denigrate refugee charities or overseas aid by publicly suggesting that other causes are more worthy of assistance? The words of clergyman John Newton should be adopted within a universal secular context: we should all demonstrate ‘amazing grace‘ in our thoughts, words and deeds.
3. Altruism is not just about giving money.
Wikipedia informs us that author Lily Hardy Hammond wrote in 1916: ‘You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.’ In modern times, the phrase ‘Pay It Forward‘ has enjoyed cultural mileage, with various activist movements around the world encouraging people to help others by performing an act of kindness. This year, a noble, aligned movement during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a ‘Kindness Epidemic‘, encouraging people to similarly perform small random acts of kindness.
Although such actions are admirable in themselves, they point to our collective need to relearn a greater human truth. As global citizens, we are morally obliged to uphold the Humanist Principle of sharing: ‘Share with those who are less fortunate and assist those who are in need of help’. This is not just in order to benefit the lives and welfare of others, but also for ourselves.
Benevolence is recognised as a universal human principle, both inside and outside religions. Even the Bible acknowledges that among its three religious virtues of faith, hope and charity, it is charity that is the greatest of them all (1 Corinthians 13:13, King James Bible). Meanwhile, humanists propose: ‘We… are less concerned with theological debate and more concerned with direct, compassionate action.’ Humanitarians across the religious/secular divide agree that we should ‘roll up our sleeves’ and actually do something – such as following the example of humanist poet Walt Whitman, who, after tending his injured brother during the US Civil War, was moved to offer his time, effort and compassion to countless other injured soldiers. For Whitman, the charity that began at home quickly became an expression of love towards an extended human family.
4. We are a world community.
“We are not alone in the universe. We have each other.” – Freethought Group.
Ethicist Peter Singer observes that the average person would not hesitate to save a drowning child if they came across that real-life scenario happening in front of them – and yet nearly ten million children around the world die each year of poverty-related causes while we collectively look the other way (pp. 3 & 4). Maybe ‘charity begins at home’ sometimes because it is much easier to be mindful of problems we can personally observe.
However, we must remain mindful of a universal truth: we are all human. From Sydney to Shanghai, London to Lagos, Kalgoorlie to Kampala, everywhere we go, we will find human beings with whom we share bloodlines and DNA. While we live locally, we should think globally. When considering that, ‘charity begins at home’, we need to remember that the whole world is our home.
5. Helping others helps ourselves.
While some cynics decry the existence of ‘welfare culture’, I welcome the idea that charity is a way of life – although I like to invert the idea: charity should be a way of life, not for recipients but for donors; not for the disadvantaged, but for those with privilege and opportunity.
At its most pragmatic, helping others also helps ourselves. If COVID-19 has taught us anything, for example, it should be that while disadvantaged people are denied access to adequate health care, the rest of us also remain endangered from second, third, fourth, or tenth wave revisitations of the virus. Until it is eliminated everywhere, nobody is safe. It is in our own enlightened self-interest to help others.
Nor is this some self-righteous philosophical abstraction. It is literally a part of what makes us human. Physician Ira Byock writes of anthropologist Margaret Mead being asked, “What is the earliest sign of civilization?”, and reports that her response was not a tool or implement or language, but a healed femur:
A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. A healed femur shows that someone cared for the injured person, did their hunting and gathering, stayed with them, and offered physical protection and human companionship until the injury could mend.
Mead explained that where the law of the jungle — the survival of the fittest — rules, no healed femurs are found. The first sign of civilization is compassion, seen in a healed femur.
Despite possibly some question being expressed about the need to confirm Mead’s quote, her words still summarise an important human attribute: altruism is part of an evolved survival instinct, found in both humans and other animals – a higher form of survival of the fittest that helps us to survive and succeed. Yes, charity begins at home – and if done properly, it goes full circle and comes back to help us as well.
© 2020 Geoff Allshorn