Monday, June 4, 2012

Why Do Unto Others?

A friend related the following story to me. Since I haven't an eidetic memory, this is my best representation of his thought.

The other night he was out for a walk in our small town. At about 10:30 he was a few blocks from home when he passed by the town's sole gas station. There was a truck parked in front of the pumps. As he approached his apogee the man who stood next to the truck called him over and asked him if there are any other gas station open nearby. There weren't. That's one thing of which everyone who lives in Barry's Bay is conscious: no gas for about 70 kms in any direction after 10 pm. He told them the unfortunate state of affairs and wished them well.

Continuing on his walk, he immediately thought about the jerry can of gas he keeps for his mower. What he imagined he had left in it he thought couldn't provide such a truck with much more than 30 kms - 40 kms at best. He hummed and he hawed, as he examined the can, realizing it had more in it than he had thought. But the young man and woman who were in the truck weren't heading in the direction of the closest pump known to my friend to certainly be open: Pembroke. They were heading in the opposite direction, through Algonquin Park. The closest open pump in that direction was probably Huntsville, probably over 100 kms away.

Yet the role of a Christian, he was certain, was to provide some kind of aid to travellers. Christians have a proud tradition of that, dating all the way back to Abraham Our Father, and typified by the aid Christians have always felt called to confer on pilgrims to holy places. Added to all of that: do unto others...

My friend has been in similar situations: his car has broke down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. He was grateful for the help passers-by had afforded him. He didn't hesitate about any of that, just whether getting them another 30 or 40 kms further along was any benefit at all. If it were me I think I would have just parked somewhere safe and comfortable and waited for the pumps to open at 5:30 the next morning.

Okay, no moral dilemma so far. He decided to do what would constitute a gift in his own eyes: give them the gas he had even though it wouldn't get them to Huntsville. So he returned, with roughly a gallon of gas in hand. He felt the couple eying him as he pass through the darkness towards them. As he got there the roughly twenty-something year-old man opened his door, smiling, and talking on his cell phone to someone. He didn't immediately get off and it didn't seem like he was talking to anyone other than a friend. That was when the situation began to complexify itself in his mind. The way my friend was brought up - as was I, I have to say, and that is why this story resonates with me - is that when someone goes out of his way to help you that is the most important thing of the moment, which requires your full attention and gratitude. He felt little gratitude. Suddenly every characteristic that he derides in 'the young people of today' revealed itself: total self-absorption, possession of every modern gadget, a vehicle more expensive than the one he has, an inability to relate to others in what might be called a traditionally courteous and self-effacing manner. Yet the young man had indicated that he had been visiting his mother, which counted for something in his mind. That fact said two things to him, actually: his mother did not live with his father, and he at least cared enough to remember his mother, which seemed the more important thing, even if he didn't remember to get gas when venturing into the country late in the evening.

Why is do unto others the morally correct thing? Because it produces good results in the world? I think most of us lean toward that explanation. It certainly has more apologetical or ecumenical cache. Doesn't it seem a little 'too religious', that is to say, the other explanation, that it's not about making the world better, it's just about doing things 'for God'? Nevertheless, this explanation fits better into my buddy's experience. The recipients didn't seem all that appreciative. Sure, appreciation is hard to measure. Give a thousand dollars to a man who makes $20,000 a year versus one who makes ten times that. Give to a man who has been taught the value of a dollar versus one who has been raised with a sense of entitlement. I'd like to say give to a Nova Scotian versus an Ontarian, but that's just plain mean. Maybe true?

Was my friend seeing the worst manifestation of what our modern secularism has brought about? No, hardly. He offered (though half-heartedly, I hear) to pay for the gas. His thanks was far from effusive, but it was there. I have worked with street people and the poorest children from public housing areas in Halifax. Thanks is not a word one hears there. That is not the mentality of those receiving from the public dole. There is shame and there is a sense of entitlement. Some times more of one, some times more of the other. As one who has been every bit as poor as those on social assistance I know how hard it is to receive. But I was taught the virtue of gratitude and that saying thank-you is not a choice. The young lady sat totally unengaged texting all the while. Perhaps that is the element of the story that perturbed me most. I know that had our situations been reversed Anne-Marie would hardly have done likewise. Why? She just not rude.

Part of it is a certain disturbing symbolism: the ownership and use of cell phones by people who are usually much less socially established than I.  The constant use of cell phones, moreover, which connotes a monthly expense that I consider staggering and prohibitive, never ceases to shock me. I have one of those pay-as-you-go phones that I use of trips, since I cannot afford more than that. Sure, I have a 'landline,' and understand that most of these young people do not. Yet, looking back not all that many years ago, the idea that I could pay somewhere between $40 and $100 a month for a phone at a time when I sometimes could afford little more than a $1 bag of chips for supper, I know that if I were twenty today I would not be able to afford a cell phone.

So, there's a variety of things running through my mind as I contemplate my friend's story. Some are legitimate and some just plain sour grapes.

Why give? Why bother when this is what our present generation looks like? Why was I so forgiving of the street people and the poor children (usually black) that I served in Halifax and not at all with these (white) people? I don't think it's racist. Most of the street people were white and a significant portion of the children. It's not hard to remember that not everyone has been as equally advantaged in their lives when you are giving a hot meal to a man who smells like urine or a child who doesn't smell a whole lot better and whose clothes are sometimes just as dirty. But with the more affluent, it is easy to forget that everyone has a story, and that not everyone has had the opportunity to learn the virtue of gratitude and the skill of receiving gifts well. We'd like to believe our acts of kindness would have the same results as the old bishop's to Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, but that is usually not the case. And I don't really think that we are supposed to reserve our kindnesses for these kinds of situations. These you would just be setting yourself up for disappointment.

Why give? Why bother? In the off-chance it will be remembered as a kindness to do unto others. And, moreover, not out of some Jansenistic sense of paying-back God, but out of the love that flows from having ourselves received so much from God. This is from 2 Corinthians:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Finally, thanks mom and dad, for teaching me gratitude and forming in me the ability to express it. It has come in very handy these last fifteen years!


  1. Give, just because it is the right thing to do. Leave the judging up to God. If you can't give without expecting anything (even gratitude) in return, don't give. It's what's in YOUR heart that counts.

  2. Doesn't it seem contradictory that the folks on the street experience entitlement and shame? The latter would prompt a hiding of sorts, and the former prompts a 'standing out front, first and foremost'. Of course, I see understand how they're both present.

    But it is true what anonymous said - you don't give because of what is in the other's heart, you give because of what's in your heart. A true gift must be given freely and without expectation, or it's not a true gift. Many of the saints prayed that their gifts would go unnoticed. Because isn't that how God gives to us 99% of the time? With zero thanks or acknowledgement?

  3. Part of the problem is that you can get in the postion where you no longer feel like giving...

  4. I'll say - for sure! We all get a little jaded...ok, in my case a lot jaded and want to stop giving altogether. But that doesn't do anybody any good and mostly hurts yourself the most. I'm not sure what the magic answer is to help from getting selfish and jaded. prayer? more giving? volunteer work with puppies?

  5. I think one can give freely and still make the observations that were made in this post. What is most disturbing is not what may have been a lack of gratitude (one can't really assess that too much) but the immediate disconnect of the two young people from the situation - as the post gets at: no real human interaction in real time, in spite of what the man with the gasoline was doing. You would expect, if not gratitude, then well, you know, an actual response. Very disconcerting.

  6. It is pretty scary to think that technology is doing this to us..

  7. It seems to me that only truly human response is to recognize their dignity even when they don't/can't. It's painful to give to those who are ungrateful and not even engaging with our own humanity, but to not give makes us part of the dehumanizing problem we see everywhere in our society.

    The questions you raise make me think that you would enjoy the movie "Monsieur Vincent." It's excellent. I was very moved by the way they portray St. Vincent de Paul as engaging and loving every person, addressing their true needs in a way that they were unaware of themselves.