If you could give the world just one thing, what would it be?
Our world is at a deficit. And when I consider what I would give the world, had I the capacity to give the world one thing, I cannot help but think back to Steve Martin. Specifically, I think of Steve Martin and his Saturday Night Live Holiday Wish, where he mused that he would like to offer the world the single wish that all the children would join hands and sing together in the spirit of harmony and peace. That, along with a monthly $30 million in his Swiss bank account, power over every individual in the universe, a 31 day orgasm and eternal vengeance against his enemies. And while I cannot help but admire his creativity and ambition, I feel that I might find myself rather bored after a time of all this. Indeed, 32 days of this type of thing might be simply too long.
What Mr. Martin is so cleverly highlighting here is something worth discussing; Despite our acknowledgment of the virtue of charity, we are painfully poor at practicing it. When I consider the hours each day spent doing for and concentrated on myself in contrast to the hours doing for and concentrating on others, I am humiliated. Despite intentional efforts to be more mindful of those around me, a burning desire to appreciated people for all that they are, and committing to a 20 hour-a-week internship at our church to concentrate my focus on the care and encouragement of others, I recognize that the label of “selflessness” remains just out of reach. And before I lead you to believe that I am being too hard on myself or self-defeatingly idealistic (or on the other hand, a truly lost cause in the area of outward focus), know that I recognize growth in myself and I am not unfamiliar with celebrating little victories when they are warranted.
There are a great many people in a great deal of need in our world. When I take time to consider the size and scope of the people in need, and the exhaustive list of their needs, I begin to feel paralyzed by my limited ability to help them. Furthermore, my strengths have more to do with matters of the heart and soul than the head or hands which further contributes to a sense of futility in matters of need such as building houses, diagnosing the sick, or reaching clever yet practical solutions worthy of TED Talks. And there have been times when that looming sense of futility has paralyzed me to do nothing. But there has been some work done on me and whilst I’m not repaired just yet, I am in repair. It is due to this repair that I am observing myself doing some helpful, servant-like things that are suited to my strengths.
But I say all of this to set the stage for my proposition. We live in a world of need. We live in a world of hurt and loneliness. We live in a country of competing ideals; where individualism, greed, and vengeance are virtues. And these things cannot be solved by feeding everyone. They do not reverse nor cease by providing jobs, or healthcare, or morality based laws with harsher punishments, or even education. There is, for all I can fathom, no single “thing” to give or wish upon the world that would help enough to be the one thing I would give.
In the disciplines of rhetoric and philosophy, there is a phrase that recently came to my attention and I have taken to loving it increasingly as I consider it; it is the principle of charity. Simon Blackburn in The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy explains that the principle of charity “… constrains the interpreter to maximize the truth or rationality in the subject’s sayings.” That is to say, when there is discourse this principle would have us assume the most rational and least scrutinizing understanding of the competing or separate point. What I love about this concept is that it necessitates that both parties actively listen to the other with the intention of understanding the other’s meaning. Additionally it prevents superfluous, exhaustive exchanges by asking that the other party not start with the absurd and have to be convinced of the obvious.
For example, if on Meet The Press the pundits chose to not start with the assumption that the competing side hated poor people or liberty, but rather received the other side’s comments with some degree of charity, perhaps we wouldn’t all have to start our Sunday mornings watching people yell at each other. And what if we were to use this rhetorical feature as an applicable principle with how we respond to each other? What if I considered the unspoken “argument” that the guy who just cut me off was making as a counter-point to my belief that I deserve to be first. The fact that he was willing to dart in front of me could very well be taken as a plea to allow him what he views as urgent advancement towards his destination. Would I be so misguided to grant that his apparent urgency may be a result of a perfectly reasonable and acceptable argument and thus, lending him charity towards that point, not feel the need for retaliation and vengeance?
It is the principle of charity that I would give the world if they would receive it. I would give everyone the ability to receive others as others actually intend to be received. I would ask that the world soften themselves towards the actions of others. That they would practice the challenge of Atticus Finch, that we walk around in each others shoes for a time and, at least attempt to see that their intentions (though at times truly will be quite bad, if not misguided) are often times a best effort. If only I could learn to listen to what others are communicating in their actions, and translate those actions into a place where I can practice this charity, then perhaps I can slowly, surely change the tide. And this is what I would give freely and hopefully to the world.
But I haven’t the ability to give this to the masses. And so I look inward, and directly around me. And insofar as it concerns me, it begins with those in traffic who cut me off. And with an attempt to appreciate and receive the types of men who equate masculinity to loud cars, large muscles, and a disdain for education. It starts with the intolerant that they may see, at least from my actions, the benefit of the doubt.