As the news cycle moves from its extensive coverage of the recent hurricanes to the latest crisis du jour, it is easy to forget that thousands of people are trying to put their lives back in order. The people in Texas are no longer front and center on our TV and computer screens; consequently, they may no longer be in the forefront of our consciousness.
But people's lives take longer than a news cycle to get back to normal after a catastrophe.
One such person comes to mind. Julia, a working mother of three, works hard and has a fairly good job but lives from paycheck to paycheck. She knows she should have money saved for emergencies; as she says, though, the children always need shoes and food, and it's difficult to save. As Hurricane Harvey approached, Julia’s uncle loaned her money to evacuate to a hotel on higher ground. She and her family were safe and had to stay longer than expected while electricity was restored to her home.
She is grateful that she and her family are safe. But the economic toll is profound. The storm affected her place of work, so she went a week without pay. This was no weeklong vacation, but it was at least as expensive. She still had to pay for car insurance, rent, and food. Julia is already just making it, but this storm will be another setback for her.
Since the news cycle has shifted to other areas, I hope we also will remember those in Florida, Louisiana, and Puerto Rico who face the difficult task of rebuilding their lives. The world has moved on to other problems, but I hope the generosity I see during acute American crises will continue.
This brings to me to a deeper question: Why do we give charity? Or, for that matter, what is charity?
Maybe we give because charity makes us feel good. Maybe friends and family ask us to give. Or maybe we do it because we grew up understanding that charity is the right thing to do. There are many reasons good people have been giving to Harvey, Irma, and Maria hurricane relief.
What drives us? Charity is a core pillar of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and other religions. In their book The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders, Karl Haden and Rob Jenkins discuss how exceptional leaders embrace and exemplify charity as one of the core virtues that motivate them.
Our English word charity derives from the Latin caritas, which literally means "love." Love has many meanings, dimensions, and connotations, from giving to those in need to eros, erotic love. Today, I want to concentrate on the “love of neighbor” aspect of love.
Giving to orphans, widows, or flood, earthquake, famine, or mass shooting victims comes under the auspices of “loving your neighbor.” We do not live in isolation but in communities: familial, neighborhood, social, religious, professional, national, and international. In differing degrees, we feel integrated in and obligated to our various communities. They are a part of us and we of them. They take care of us, and we desire to take care of them.
Lovingly helping your neighbor can make you feel good. But true charity is more than a feel-good experience. You feel good when you’ve taken your elderly neighbor to her eye appointment, volunteered at the local food pantry, or contributed to the Houston hurricane victims. That is good in and of itself, and it truly helps your neighbors. This charity is good and it is easy to act upon.
Yet, paradoxically, “loving your neighbor” can be more difficult the closer you get (e.g., when the neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking at 3:00 a.m., your neighbor has a completely different philosophy for coaching your daughter’s soccer team, or your elderly neighbor wants you to help her get to the grocery, foot doctor, and pharmacy after you take her to the eye doctor). These scenarios don’t make you feel quite so good about loving your neighbor. Yet love challenges us to rise to these more difficult occasions.
We live complicated, complex lives that require us to balance many different challenges, and honestly, sometimes all we can do is write a check. And that is good—very good.
The 9 Virtues of Exceptional Leaders is based on a solid Aristotelian foundation, one that contends that the virtuous leader integrates virtues (such as charity) deeply into his or her individual human nature. From that flows action and, from this action, becomes character. That is, one actually remembers the people still trying to get their lives in order after the rest of the world’s attention has moved on from their stories. You, as the virtuous person and virtuous leader, act. You act charitably, because you are charitable.
As Haden and Jenkins explain, the individual virtues do not exist in a vacuum. The virtuous leader incorporates many of them. One such virtue is humility.
Humility is deflecting attention away from the self to others. We all can cite examples of people who have made such a big deal of their act of charity that the good deed is eclipsed by their self-aggrandizement. Yes, the people in need were helped, but the benefactor has done the deed for the sake of praise, not its inherent good. There is no humility here, nor is there true charity.
In the case of the forgotten hurricane victims, as a virtuous leader, do you quietly write a check? Humility is a wonderful virtue. Or, as a leader, do you write a check and announce that you've done so, hoping to motivate others? True leadership hopes to accomplish the best possible good. That allows your virtuous actions to have a multiplier effect and make the world a better place.
Either way—motivating others to act, or quietly writing a check—people like Julia, the forgotten working mother in Houston, appreciate your charity.
Michael Silveus, D.D.S., M.S.
Dr. Silveus is a Vice President of AAL and has a broad range of expertise in leadership development, institutional feasibility assessment and founding, accreditation, strategic planning, and faculty mentoring. He has worked in development and campus ministry, and provided care at dental clinics in underserved areas. He was on the original administrative team that founded the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School network. Dr. Silveus serves on many boards, including the Institute of Clinical Bioethics at St. Joseph’s University.