The Curse of Charity

Avery, Martha. “Is Marriage a Failure.” The Nationalist Volume 1 no. 6 (1889): 184-187.

I am glad to know of homes for working women, asylums for invalids, or institutions that in any way help persons to help themselves. It proves that the heart of the world is throbbing with sympathy for those who are destitute of the means and comforts of human life; and that it is trying to soothe, if it may not heal, afflicted humanity. But for those persons who would organize charities, if it were not for their personal lack of wealth, there is still nobler work awaiting their most ardent endeavors. Do not waste energy in lamentations but gird up your loins and lift up your heart to the Highest for inspiration to develop such a system of social relations between man and man that the abomination known as charity shall have no slightest foothold. It is degrading in four distinct ways.

First, in cultivating the spirit of my Lady Bountiful who feels calmly superior to those whom she assists and takes the gratitude of those relieved as her just due. Sometimes, she instills into the minds of her children that it is a happiness to have a poor family on whom to confer benefits and who in return render them homage, thus poisoning the spontaneous relation between children. The very fact that one is able to give, that which one cannot use, to one who is absolutely destitute makes the gulf broader which they would ostensibly span. Unless one believes that no two persons can come in contact without each bearing a valuable lesson for the other, albeit the lesson of the strong is positive and that of the weak negative, —unless one believes that reciprocity is the law between man and man—I think he has lost that deep significance of being without which life is aimless and profitless. Material giving fosters that complacent Phariseeism which is habitual to many engaged in such work, as may be seen from the reports of the committees of charitable institutions, for they rarely if ever give credit for any gain to themselves. In the natural order of things if they met those to whom they minister on a level, that high level that says, all are the sons of God, they would gain those deep experiences which alone make life valuable. But some like the distinction of the belief that they are the instruments in God's hands +o doles out goods to "God's poor."

"God's poor!" Why can we not recognize that God has provided the earth and all things thereof, and endowed man with the brain to think, the hand to execute, and the heart to desire, in order that all good shall come to every human soul? That God wills not that there shall be any poor? How do we dare establish charities longer, —and talk of our lovely daughters as though they were cast in a different mound from those other daughters whom we condescendingly reach down to help? Do we not know of methods whereby all mankind of normal condition will be capable of supplying for themselves not only the necessities, but the luxuries of life: in fact, those things which now form the dividing line between those who condescend and those condescended to? Refined superciliousness on one side and meek subserviency on the other! —I like rather the courage to starve, or the cunning to steal, than cringing acceptance of the means of life, after one has made an honest endeavor to obtain it and failed because of injustice.

Then comes the second pernicious result. The receiving of charity saps the very springs of self-respect. It is a confession of failure. Viewed within limited range one is forced to believe that the fault lies only within oneself. One sees on all sides men succeed in building up such colossal fortunes as the world has never before seen, and narrowly reasons that all could if they had the ability; not seeing the larger fact, that, if more men were gaining large wealth, a few men would be unable to amass such immense fortunes. Yet the man who fails does know that men are pushed to the wall by this resistless system of competition and he duly resolves to take what comes to him and bear it with as little feeling as possible, and so sinks back and represses the very qualities that make the difference between a man conscious through high endeavor and lofty aspiration of his kinship with the Powers that be, and a fawning slave, who tries to content himself with bare existence and accepts as fate that some persons are destined to have a superabundance and others are to live upon their bounty.

A third and disastrous effect of charity on character is to blunt the sense of courtesy and justice and create dishonesty. The popular version has it the more you give the more you may. How often have we seen this effect that after assistance is rendered several times it is taken as a matter of course, even demanded; the giver treated with insolent disregard and, if opportunity affords, his possessions appropriated as common property?

The fourth and most enervating effect of charity is upon the world at large. It has many phases: it is absurd: it is extravagant: it is unscientific: it is immoral and irreligious.

It is absurd to plaster here and there, when the whole system is diseased and needs fundamental treatment.

It is extravagant because a large part of the wealth and energy employed in charity goes to create the very condition that it would dissipate. The more institutions we establish the more in increasing ratio there are to fill them.

It is unscientific because it does not seek the cause of poverty by carrying the investigation back to the modern method of supplying physical wants and forward to the legitimate result of the system. Neither does it classify poverty so that we may know whether it be commercial, physical, mental, or moral debility before applying a remedy.

It is immoral because it fosters the belief that the causes of poverty are inherent in the nature of things, —phenomena to be mitigated, but not eradicated. Immoral, too, because it preaches that some must go to the wall in order that others may ascend to the top round of the material ladder: which is complacently declared to be the law of the survival of the fittest. Is it indeed morally fitter that we allow greed and malevolence rather than fraternity and love to rule our lives? Morality asserts that justice is the exact proportion between man and man. Is charity justice?

It is irreligious because it practically denies the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. All true men feel the degradation of seeing a fellow man treated with less considerate kindness than they deem due to their dearest loved one; " even as ye have done it unto the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto Me."

Perhaps, too, the most immediate and persistent defeat to the high attainments of individual life is charity in its less ostentatious forms. Leone accepts a costly present from one whom he dearly loves but to whom he cannot return equivalent benefit: the result almost sure to follow is, either the giving over of a little personality; a slight lowering of independence of thought and expression; a subtle confession of inferiority, or a degree of resentment, more or less bitter, because material wealth gives one the advantage over another, especially if he feels that moral and intellectual force should rule the world. For close friendship (that relation which gives the best that one is unreservedly to another, with whom no subject is in the slightest degree tabooed) to be reciprocal and unrestrained there must be a level plain of mutual advantage on which each rest. One pulls down his worth greatly if he sells in the slightest degree his vigor of mind to the host under whose mahogany, he puts his feet: because forsooth he is not able to return the compliment in kind. Only rare souls can place and hold themselves up to that high point whereon personality is sacrificed under such circumstances.

And if it be true that we adapt ourselves to our environment, is it not important that conditions be such that they stimulate our truest and loftiest endeavor? The fishes that swim in the pools of Mammoth Cave haven eyes. Is it possible for man and woman to sustain that high relation to each other that is native to them so long as man has control of the purse-strings and doles out with more or less show of superiority the price of the necessities or luxuries of living? To step into a deeper sphere of life, can mankind fulfil its destiny until man gives over the idea, in any form, of condescension to woman, and woman consents to guide her life according to her deeper intuitions and loftier reasonings? When this right time comes, man will have lost somewhat of authority, it is true, that he will have gained thereby an inherent right: that of the companionship of woman, his co-mate. Women will have gained for the first-time in human history the freedom to develop her consciously Godlike power of creation and will give to the world such moral and intellectual giants as the great poet promises.

Then reign the world’s great bridals chaste and clam,

Then springs the crowning race of humankind.

That these things may be, let us carry forward the principle of equity along all lines: some of which are already developing in organized movements; and a strong tendency to organized movement is seen in all recent institutions both political and moral.

This principle is so broad that it admits persons of all shades of opinion and grades of ability to enter the field. Those who do not working the positive direction must perforce work in the negative, for as we glance down the page of history, we find the whole trend of civilization tube towards a system of government that shall afford all person’s scope, not only to develop the entire range of their industrial, intellectual, and physical faculties, but also the opportunity of applying their acquirements.

Just what final form such Nationalism will take we must leave the future to decide. But we are firm in the faith that it will be far grander than we now can picture and that a realization of the lower heights is within our near grasp.

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