Should charity begin at home?


Thursday 11th September 2014

A lively first discussion of the new academic year elicited some thoughtful ideas mainly centred on the opposition between self-interest and empathy. Most agreed that ‘charity’ meant helping others who are less fortunate than oneself; giving to others without asking for anything in return and actively engaging with others in trouble with a spirit of service. The discussion veered towards the question of whether there are any truly selfless acts, though perhaps the ‘truly’ is more a distraction from the more positive aspects of the idea of ‘altruism’: humans are social beings and tend to form groups through mutual cooperation and communication. We just can’t help helping others! But how do we KNOW who to help?

In one example, someone gave money to another who appeared to be in real trouble, although there were many clues in the situation that pointed to a con. Selfless act or sheer stupidity? In slightly different example, a girl’s instincts warned her to cross the road to avoid a dubious character in the street; her mother didn’t cross and got physically abused. What both examples raised was the power of our intuitions in deciding what to do in situations where we face an either/or choice. Much of the time, we don’t weigh up the evidence at hand and just go with our gut. We’re not completely rational beings at the best of times.

Let’s get back to the idea of charitable giving and service. It’s one of the key values at KEHS and girls are inculcated with the idea from day one: your first day back involves, amongst many things, to choose your charity which you’ll sponsor for a year. How many cake sales have you done in your school life?

Recently, an experienced member of staff rediscovered out a letter from a previous Head of KEHS, Miss Creek, outlining her vision of what she wanted a KEHS graduate to be. This is how it goes:

‘I suppose it is an unusual school, though it is only for the last two or three years that I have begun to realize that.  I think I have always tried to keep in view what sort of character I desired in my girls, and then, making that the dominant factor, I have tried to see what their parents wanted for them, and tried as far as possible to say “We want such and such things for our girls”; it was my business to say “Yes, I will try to give that,” or to say “No, I cannot accept such objects,” and then it was my business to say how the ends were to be obtained.

‘Character, health, the power of filling one’s place in life – those have been the things I have sought for my girls, and I think they have attained to a high sense of duty and a great simplicity of character.’

You can infer that ‘duty’ implies the ideas of self-sacrifice, giving and service and points us to a wider Christian context of the biblical use of the Latin caritas: “And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.” (Corinthians 13:13) In Greek caritas is agape and scholars argue that this idea invites us to cultivate love: the kind of love that God has for his created beings; the love of the God within ourselves (if we are made in the image of Him) and the love of others as God would love them. What is this love? Coming back to the start of this post, one word that comes to mind is ‘unconditional’. Which, of course, begs the question, can humans be truly unconditional in their giving, service, love?

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