But charities, like so much else, are facing troubles in the pandemic and as a result of the lockdowns which are defining our current world. 166,000 charities are reporting dangerous shrinkage in income, most visible among them perhaps the Royal British Legion’s Poppy Appeal. I did wonder the other day why I had not managed to find myself a poppy seller (by the beginning of November we are normally falling over them) but was too dozy to realise that, of course, we normally buy them in the street. And what has happened to our streets? All closed, shuttered, no face to face selling of anything, including poppies.
With that came my realisation that the books I was waiting to take to the (very good) Oxfam Bookshop in my local town were going to have to sit in the hall for at least another month. Books are not essential (apparently) and neither are charity shops. So, another source of income has dried up for the charity sector.
Perhaps, in the modern world, we don’t think enough about charity. We put our money in the plate at church, make automatic online donations to our charities of choice and then, feeling our duty done, more or less forget them until we notice them on our bank statements and allow ourselves a tiny moment of smugness.
In the modern world, we don’t think enough about charity. We put our money in the plate at church, make automatic online donations to our charities of choice and then, feeling our duty done, more or less forget them.
But this is all wrong. I think back to my childhood, to the coin passed to me in church by my father so that I felt I was giving. I remember handing out the fifty pence pieces to my own children for the same reason, and now the pound coin to my grand-daughter. I remember going on hunger strike during the Biafran War, saying I wanted to send my supper to the poor Biafran children. (My parents’ “think of the starving Biafrans” when I was being fussy turned into a bit of an own goal.) With the automation of all things financial our giving – if it happens at all – has become a thoughtless duty, and certainly does not bring us back spiritually to life.
The purpose of charity – whether the giving of money or time – is obviously not to make us feel better about ourselves, and that is not what St Thomas Aquinas wanted, but I can’t help but feel that charity that comes with love is worth so much more than charity that comes as a duty. The money may be the same, the immediate effects may be the same, but the wider message is not. The pennies my father handed me were to teach me something about how we should be as humans, and so were given with love. The poppy – outward symbol of respect and remembrance – carries with it its own sort of love.
“Child”, “meat”, “weep”, “love” all have their roots in Anglo Saxon. We knew then what mattered. And “charity” was part of that lexicon.
Via Latin and Old French, “charity” in the sense of Christian love of one’s fellows has been in our language since late Anglo-Saxon times; the words that survive since then are words that represent the core of who we are. “Child”, “meat”, “weep”, “love” all have their roots in Anglo Saxon. We knew then what mattered. And “charity” was part of that lexicon. Which is not to say that charity, in the modern sense, is only a Christian concept: Zakat (charity) is the third pillar of Islam; the Buddhists call it Dana, which means giving, without anticipation of return; the Hindus are equally aware of the importance of giving.
The UK is consistently one of the most generous charitable countries of the world (always beaten by the Irish); so why are charities suffering so much at the moment? If we care, do we really need a charity shop or a poppy seller to nudge our consciences? Or is that, locked into our houses, worried about the present and the future, we are all becoming more inward-looking, more shrunk into our own lives and our own problems?
Many, many people are suffering the effects of lockdown. Jobs are disappearing, families are falling apart, no one feels safe. But we should remember that if we are suffering, others are suffering more. If we feel too frightened, or threatened, to look far outside our windows, maybe we should force ourselves to do that very thing. Look into your food cupboards, and read about the food banks. Give that packet of rice that you might need one day, the tins of tomatoes that you bought “just in case”. Give even if – or especially if – it leaves you just a little bit worried. We are probably all doing less than we were “before”. Give now, give locally, give with love.
Sophia Waugh is a writer, journalist and teacher. Her most recent book is Cooking People: The Writers who Taught the British how to Eat.
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