The English word charity has a long and ambiguous history, depending on the source you refer to. It stems from the 4th century when St Jerome translated the Christian bible from Greek to Latin. He used “caritas” in place of “agape” which is referenced over 300 times in the Greek version and is said to mean “the highest form of love”. There are Jewish, Islamic and other translations, all with similar meaning, about caring for or giving to, the poor. The different cultural / religious connotations are interesting to note. Christian implications of charity are said to include the virtue of wealth and the free will of the virtuous to give, or not. Jewish charity, known as tzedakah, stresses an obligation of the wealthy to give, the right of the poor to receive, equal social status of both and an ultimate intention of wealth redistribution. The Islamic equivalents are zakat (compulsory giving) and sadaqah (voluntary giving). Buddha taught that all giving should be free from attachment to either the gift or the recipient, and that generosity leads to freedom. All religious interpretations have humanitarian and spiritual implications.
The phrase “charity begins at home” also has a long and evolving history and is today, said to be one of the most frequently misused expressions in the English language. The phrase was probably first coined by Sir Thomas Browne, in a literary work called Religio Medici, published in the 1600s. The literal interpretation of his meaning is that being caring towards ourselves and those around us, sets the scene for being generous on a wider scale. As with so many phrases and philosophies, it has become misconstrued, with many using it today as a warning against being too generous, particularly to people in far away places! The inference seems to have become, that charity actually ends at home.
Yet in an unintentional way, charity actually does travel full circle and end up back at home. An awesome example of this is the case of Julia Wise and Jeff Kaufman, a young Boston couple who have given away 40% of their pre-tax earnings every year since 2008. They are putting into practice what various studies have shown – that high levels of giving actually enrich our lives. One study concluded that donating to charity has a similar correlation with happiness, as a doubling of household income. So giving to benefit others actually benefits the giver.
Not unlike the sense I often have here in Central Australia, living amongst a marginalised indigenous society, my first few months in Cambodia, surrounded by extreme and often shocking poverty, perturbed me. Living in comfort alongside hunger and destitution challenged my sense of justice and equality. Also my sense of self, as I came to a realisation of my excessively entitled life. I slowly resolved this inner dilemma by learning to connect with people from vastly different worlds, and offering help where I was able to. Not only did this alleviate a small amount of the suffering I witnessed, but it was personally fulfilling to see the difference I was able to make in others’ lives. I feel honoured to have made this discovery and to have had the adventures of a lifetime along the way. This all stemmed from my having the time to help a few people out in ways that most fortunate people never experience.
I’d already had many unusual adventures here in Central Australia, which were a prelude to what lay ahead for me in Cambodia. I wondered how I would feel returning home. It has been surprisingly easy, helped by returning to my furnished home, familiar workplace, welcomed by neighbours, colleagues and friends such that it felt as though I’d merely been away for a long weekend. However, I feel like a different person courtesy of the soul searching about both myself and the world, visited upon me during my two years away. This morning alone, I watched “news” of Justin Beiber posting selfies of his bare chest on Twitter, heard that Australians are the “world champions in taking Ecstasy”, seen morning TV presenters ziplining through treetops, riding rollercoasters and jumping out of aeroplanes, and watched snippets of the weekend’s live concerts across the country. Taylor Swift in Sydney, Ed Sheeran in Brisbane, Sam Smith in Perth, with some tickets selling for up to $500pp.
Where once these “news” items would have interested and entertained me while seeming fairly normal, it all now seems incredibly self-indulgent. That is not to say that I would not love to see Sam Smith in concert or enjoy various other luxuries, because I would and I do. I’m going to have to buy some “rich world” shoes because I can’t get around in thongs at work or social functions any longer! I’ve just spent an amount on my hairstyle which I know could feed a family for months. The list of luxuries I am slowly surrendering to as I settle back into Australian life goes on. But our rich world indulgences should be interspersed with charity towards those in need, both because we can and because it is a very healthy endeavour for us to engage in.
Thankfully I’m not alone in my epiphany about the rewards of giving. There are many movements today, involved in encouraging and supporting people who wish to give. One of my favourites is the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. They use their money to do the most good for the most people and they often talk about what I know and try to impart in this blog: the fact that with so many people in the world existing on almost nothing, those of us in the “rich world” do not need to make big sacrifices in order to have a big impact on lives of the extremely poor. To quote Bill Gates, people living in rich nations are in a unique position to make a real difference to the lives of the most impoverished people on the planet. Not only does our money go much further in the developing world than it does at home, but we also now have access to the technology and understanding to allow us to target our resources effectively.
If you are someone who argues that you shouldn’t give to charity because you can’t trust where your money will go, think again. There are many organisations such as GiveWell and GivingWhatWeCan, devoted to evaluating and promoting the most effective charities. Most reputable charities have their own websites and implement economic transparency so that donors know where their money will be spent. Your money does not have to disappear into a black hole, and if you do a little bit of research, all available online, it probably won’t.
Strikingly inconsistent with the difference we can make in the “poor world”, it is estimated that last year Australians spent over $520 million on unwanted gifts. It’s hard not to imagine the good that could come from such wasted money. There are so many organisations offering a charitable alternative to this waste. Check out Care Australia’s Gifts that will never go unloved or Plan International’s Breakfast at school for a year as two examples. Even Mahboba’s Promise, an Australian-Afghani charity, are marketing Christmas Gifts That Will Change The World. My own Go Fund Me is also still open, currently with only $100 not yet given away, at Help A Cambodian Family.
[A quick update on Paula for those wondering. She remains in the USA with her mother, staying at a hotel covered by my friend Karen and under the watchful friendship of the local Cham community who embraced us all so readily. Last week she was discharged from the care of the surgeon who cured her and recent photographs show a strong, healthy and beautiful, transformed young woman. She remains in the care of a plastic surgeon and her healing wound now looks quite superficial. She will probably return home in the next month to six weeks].
We in the “rich world” have inherited phenomenal advantages. We are an entitled global minority. By giving small amounts of time, attention or money to effective causes we can make a serious difference to some of the world’s poorest and most distressed people. Charity does begin at home. It also ends at home, but not in the commonly misinterpreted meaning of the proverb. For the most selfish reasons charitable acts towards the needy, no matter where they might be, are a highly desirable venture. Do it for Christmas!