If a man asks you for food, take him to a sandwich shop and sit with him to eat. Don’t give him a wad of bills or a card to draw infinitely upon the food bank. You do not serve the man in him with such charity—you stifle his humanity by making your sacrifice at the altar of the Stomach. You proclaim that the end of life is to stay alive. You heard the word “hungry”, but you did not hear the man who said he was hungry.
If a man tells you that his child is sick and needs medicine, take him and his child to a doctor, and buy what medicine is needed. But do not give the man’s family endless draws upon your account to buy whatever medicine they may need at any time in the future. Charity without a setting or boundaries is an unlimited worship of the god Health; and in serving that god, you declare that life is about nothing but health, always health. If the child is cured for no other reason than to stay cured, then he might as well grow on a stem in a garden, like a vegetable.
And if a man comes to you saying that he is so tired of life that he yearns to end it, do not give him a free pass to an amusement park or introduce him to a wild leaf that sends the bored mind into ecstasy. The god of Escape can keep bodies alive as well as food and medicine sometimes—but what lives is only a body. Try your best, rather, to show the man what weariness of life teaches about life: that it ends in nothing if one sets one’s goals within its boundaries.
Charity is not about feeding the hungry, but about removing hunger as an obstacle to a higher mission. Sickness is another obstacle—and the purpose of life is not to avoid being sick, any more than it is to avoid boredom.
We always teeter on the brink of getting this wrong, because lavishing people with food or medicine or amusement is a deed, a measurable behavior… but the spirit has no measure. The spirit is a negative presence, we might say. We cannot bestow it as we would a sandwich of a Z-pack. We can only remove obstacles to it. Saving a person from death only gives him the opportunity to live; we cannot know if he will use his opportunity well. Refusing to fuel a lie only gives the truth an opportunity to prevail; we cannot know if that truth will bring most people to insight or despair.
Health, happiness, prosperity… they all end when life ends. And if life ends tomorrow, then it might as well end today—at least if it is to hold nothing for us but animal satisfactions won from a body that declines to torture us. But for a person who has found purpose in life, even bodily tortures—sickness, tedium, poverty—are a small price to pay if they are a means of the spirit’s reaching its end. A father will live on one meal a day to feed his child. An artist will take the money that might have kept wood in his fireplace if it will buy paint and canvas.
What kind of person are we producing in our world today—a plump vegetable immobilized in a garden, or a visionary who happily suffers privation for the sake of a higher end? I think we all know.