Note the prominent ‘I love.’ This sort of generosity, if that’s the correct word, is something I find almost too pleasurable. There are complicated reasons why I place so much of my value in supporting and pleasing others, and why I experience an addictive surge of satisfaction in response. It’s a damaging trait, so this Christmas, once again surrounded by too many opportunities for compulsive benevolence, I want to slow down a little and think about whom all this charity stuff is really for.
When I was eight or nine I was sent off to a charity Christmas party. I suppose I went by bus although I don’t remember the trip at all; maybe a neighbor drove me. I do recall a huge room, something like a school auditorium, and I vaguely recall the requisite Santa. I suppose people shuttled me around that big dim experience; everything was organized and impersonal. I do know there were racks of winter coats, and I came away with a bright red wool coat I actually liked and wore constantly.
But I did understand that it was charity, and red coat notwithstanding I wish it had never happened. It was demoralizing, frightening, and humiliating. Now here I am, already planning the details of my traditional holiday giving because it’s what I want to do.
Of course the whole charity game is crooked; everyone admits that much. A banquet beats working in a soup kitchen; a fashionable ball is more fun than a home visit, and writing a check is infinitely preferable to doing anything consistently through the year. That’s simply purchasing a chance to show off or assuage guilt. But it’s for a good cause, and it raises money that wouldn’t be forthcoming otherwise, right? After all, I really want that Toys for Tots kid to get a present.
Except genuine charity involves sharing not only disposable funds but time and passion and knowledge and status and opportunity. Charity is never casual; that dollar in the kettle is something else entirely. Painless holiday giving makes me think of self-help television where wise inspirational speakers tell us how to make it all better. They may be right, but we’ll never find out, because watching these shows is what we do instead of following their advice, a palliative to dull our anxiety and prevent us from doing anything authentic.
A conventional donation now and then is fine, but if that’s all you give you’re cheating everyone, including yourself. In these darkest days of this very dark year we need to reach out and help hold each other up, or at least offer a brief word of kindly recognition at the office or convenience store or train station, a “Good to see you!” Because despite the gloom we can still see each other if we try, and everyone needs to be seen. I’m sure you can manage that. I think I’ll actually try this year, myself. And I wonder if anyone will reach out to me.
NOTE regarding Worthy of This Great City: before buying the book please read the Reader Alert on the Home Page, then the full Prologue on the Excerpts page. Or else don’t blame me.)
Photo credits: Neromar, Light up a candle, it’s Christmas time! / Presidio of Monterey, Marines deliver Toys for Tots