Think Philanthropically

 “If you haven’t got any charity in your heart then you have the worst kind of heart trouble” – Bob Hope

Turn on the news.  What do we see and hear?  Much of the reporting covers stories that document a lack of basic civility that has caused a tragedy.  We may be partly sheltered from some of this. Canadians do not have to worry about bombs that might hit our homes nor are we subject to arbitrary arrest and detention.  However, we are faced with a subtler set of challenges. These challenges have the potential to cause us to act aggressively to protect our perceived interests.  When we hear about unfathomable evils in other parts of the world or entertain the conspiracy theories that circulate on social media we can become angry, suspicious, or bitter.  Even worse, we can lose our sensitivity to others and abandon any reflex to relate to others with kindness and generosity.

Observable prejudices are increasingly emerging from the shadows where they once lurked.  We are no longer shocked by displays of intolerance towards groups of people who are easy targets. Some would propose that we live in a “post-truth” world.  It is increasingly common to be encouraged to select from a multiple choice menu of perspectives that are presented as facts. Once upon a time, our leaders were expected to act with dignity and gravitas. Today, we are unsurprised when they don’t. This is causing some folks to be swept up in the rhetoric of a new breed of smooth talking populists who specialize in an “us versus them” narrative.  In a post-pandemic world, it is so easy to abandon the lessons that we learned around the need for collective care. There is no “them.” There is only “us”.  The prevailing narrative around “other people” may be one of the reasons why we are observing a precipitous decline in democratic and social values around the world.

Most of the readers of this column would likely describe themselves as “among the fortunate”.  All of us experience difficulties and challenges but our concerns likely do not include how we will survive until tomorrow.  We do not fear that an opinion expressed to a neighbour might cause us to be incarcerated.  Warren Buffet once said that “if you are among the luckiest 1% of humanity then you owe it to the rest of humanity to think about the other 99%”.  Many of us are in that 1%, or at least the top 10%.  So how can we follow Mr. Buffet’s advice?

Perhaps we ought to look to the ancient wisdom of acting with humility.  Humility is foundational to the process of maintaining our philanthropic reflexes. Philosophers like Confucius, Socrates and Aristotle all wrote extensively about humility as a moral virtue, one that binds a society together.  Our 21st century aspirations of self-actualization and personal gain have the potential to distort the higher calling of compassion, benevolence, and selflessness.

The process of acting charitably in an environment of increasing incivility likely begins by owning up to our personal blind spots.  It also includes deliberately suspending judgement and blame, two reflexes that come naturally to most of us.  We need to accept that our evaluations of people and situations are often flawed, or coloured by our biases.  It is liberating to avoid responding to a perceived slight or to give the benefit of the doubt to a person who may have misspoken.  Ultimately, for readers of this column, philanthropists, it is even more liberating to act with kindness and altruism towards those who are disconnected and disadvantaged.  It may not instantly change the entire world, but it can change one person’s world.

Sam Watts serves as the CEO of Welcome Hall Mission  He serves on several non-profit boards and is an appointed member of the National Housing Council of Canada.  He is the author of Good Work…Done Better