It is one of the seven virtues of Christianity. It used to have a central place in Roman ethics and Judaism as well. Today, we remain deeply impressed by the idea of charity, but often from a distance, without probing the concept too deeply, with little attempt to practise it systematically. It’s something we might have recourse to when we’re moved by a documentary on the TV or have some loose change left over after the holidays.
At its most basic, charity means: giving someone something they need but can’t get for themselves. And normally that’s understood to mean something material. We overwhelmingly associate charity with giving money.
The heroes of Christianity are exemplars of such charity. Outside the city, Saint Francis comes across a poor man. His garments are thin and ragged. Winter is coming on and coats are expensive. The saint is moved to charity.
But, at its core, charity goes far beyond finance. It is about stepping in when we see that a person needs help with something that they can’t do for themselves – and that their helplessness is not a sign of wickedness or sin, but is fundamentally a part of the human condition. We freely give because we appreciate how often we too need to help, how we wouldn’t have made it if other people had not – at key points, in different contexts – cut us some slack.
It is in our relations with colleagues, friends and family members that charity becomes particularly necessary. Here we don’t generally require the charity of money, cloaks and free meals. What we are short of is charity of interpretation: that is, a charitable perspective on the weaknesses, eccentricities, anxieties and follies that we are unable to explain or win sympathy for, and that we typically merely act out, with immaturity and hurt.
A charitable soul does extra work of interpretation. They come forward with explanations of their friends: they understand enough about their past to have a picture of where their impatience or over-ambition, rashness or meekness came from. They hold in mind what happened with their parents and with the move to another country and with the brother who died too young. They lend a picture of who the person in the ‘begging’ position is (it isn’t just a lack of money that turns us into ‘beggars’, it can be any kind of vulnerability that places us, metaphorically, on our knees), a picture that is sufficiently generous and complex as to make them more than just the ‘fool’ or ‘weirdo’, the ‘failure’ or ‘loser’ that they might otherwise so easily have been dismissed as.
The genuinely charitable person gives generously from a sense that they too stand in need of charity. Not right now, not over this, but in some other area. They know that self-righteousness is merely the result of a faulty memory, an inability to hold in mind – at moments when one is truly totally in the right – how often one has been deeply and definitively in the wrong.
Charity remembers how there might still be goodness amidst a lot of evil. Charity keeps in mind that if someone is tired and stressed, they are liable to behave appallingly. Charity is aware that when someone shouts an insult they are not usually revealing the secret truth about their feelings. They are trying to wound the other because they feel they have been hurt – usually by someone else, whom they don’t have the authority to injure back.
Charity is interested in mitigating circumstances; in bits of the truth that can cast a less catastrophic light on follies.
In financial matters, charity tends always to flow in one direction. The philanthropist may be very generous, but usually they stay rich; they are habitually the giver rather than the recipient. But in life as a whole, and especially in relationships, charity is unlikely ever to end up being one-sided: who is weak and who is powerful changes rapidly and frequently. You are likely to be, as it were, a ‘patron’ in one area and a ‘beggar’ in another. So we must be kind not only because we are touched by the suffering of others but because we properly understand that we too will soon be in urgent need of an equally vital dose of charity in another part of life.
To help us with our charitable interpretations, it can help to consider a theory known as The Weakness of Strength. The failings of friends, colleagues and partners can be deeply galling. We got close to them because of their skills and merits – but after a while it can be the disappointing sides of their personalities that dominate our view of them.
We look upon their faults and wonder again and again why they are the way they are. Why so slow? Why so unreliable? How can they be so bad at explaining things or telling an anecdote! Why can’t they face bad news straight on? Even worse, we feel they could change – if only they really wanted to, if only they weren’t so mean…
The Weakness of Strength Theory dictates that we should always strive to see people’s weaknesses as the inevitable downside of certain merits that drew us to them, and from which we will benefit at other points (even if none of these benefits are apparent right now). What we’re seeing are not their faults, pure and simple, but rather the shadow side of things that are genuinely good about them. We’re picking up on weaknesses that derive from strengths. If we were to write down a list of strengths and then a list of weaknesses, we’d find that almost everything on the positive side could be connected to something on the negative side.
Henry James in 1890
In the 1870s, when he was living in Paris, the American novelist Henry James became a good friend of the celebrated Russian novelist Ivan Turgenev, who was also living in the city at that time. Henry James was particularly taken by the unhurried, tranquil style of the Russian writer’s storytelling. He obviously took a long time over every sentence, weighing different options, changing, polishing, until – at last – everything was perfect. It was an ambitious, inspiring approach to writing.
But in personal and social life, these same virtues could make Turgenev a maddening companion. He’d accept an invitation to lunch; then – the day before – send a note explaining that he would not be able to attend; then another saying how much he looked forward to the occasion. Then he would turn up – two hours late. Arranging anything with him was a nightmare. Yet his social waywardness was really just the same thing that made him so attractive as a writer. It was the same unwillingness to hurry; the same desire to keep the options open until the last moment. This produced marvellous books – and dinner party chaos. In reflecting on Turgenev’s character, Henry James reflected that his Russian friend was exhibiting the ‘weakness of his strength.’
The theory goes like this: every strength that an individual has necessarily brings with it a weakness of which it is an inherent part. It is impossible to have strengths without weaknesses. Every virtue has an associated weakness. Not all the virtues can belong together in a single person.
This is a theory that can help calm us down at moments of particular crisis, because it changes the way we see the defects, failings and weakness of others. Our minds tend to hive off the strengths and see these as essential, while deeming the weaknesses as a freakish add-on, but in truth, the weaknesses are part and parcel of the strengths.
The theory usefully undermines the properly unhelpful idea that – if only we looked a bit harder – we would find someone who was always perfect to be around. If strengths are invariably connected to failings, there won’t be anyone who is remotely flawless. We may well find people with different strengths, but they will also have a new litany of weaknesses. It’s always calming to take a moment to remind ourselves that perfect people simply don’t exist.
Our societies are very interested in winners but don’t really know what to do about losers – of which there are always, by definition, far more.
For a long time, around success and failure, the rhetoric tends to be very upbeat. We hear about resilience, bouncing back, never surrendering and giving it another go. But there’s only so long this kind of talk can go on. At some point, the conclusion becomes inevitable: things won’t work out. The political career isn’t going to have a come-back. There’ll be no way of getting finance for the film. The novel won’t be accepted by the thirty-second publisher. The criminal charges are forever going to taint one’s reputation. One’s stuffed up big time.
Where does responsibility for success and failure lie? Nowadays, squarely with the individual concerned. That’s why failure isn’t just hard (as it has always been), it is a catastrophe. There is no metaphysical consolation, no possibility of appealing to an idea of ‘bad luck,’ no one to blame but oneself. No wonder suicide rates climb exponentially once societies become modern and start to hold people profoundly responsible for their biographies. Meritocracies turn failure from a misfortune to an unbudgeable existential verdict on the state of one’s soul.
But not all societies and eras have seen success and failure in such a stark light. In Ancient Greece, another rather remarkable possibility – quite ignored by our own era – was envisaged: you could be good and yet fail. To keep this idea at the front of the collective imagination, the Ancient Greeks developed a particular art form: tragic drama. They put on huge festivals, at which all the citizens were expected to attend, to act out stories of appalling, often grisly, failure: people were seen to break a minor law, or make a hasty decision or sleep with the wrong person and the result was ignominy and death. Yet what happened was shown to be to a large extent in the hands of what the Greeks called ‘fate’ or ‘the Gods’. It was the Greeks’ poetic way of saying that things often work out in random ways, according to dynamics that simply don’t reflect the merits of the individuals concerned.
In The Poetics, the philosopher Aristotle defined the key ingredients of tragedy. The hero of the tragedy should be a decent person: ‘better than average’, often high-born but prone to making small mistakes, as we all do. At the start, it may not be obvious that it is an error they are making. But by an unfortunate chain of events, for which they are not wholly to blame, this small mistake leads to a catastrophe.
Tragedy is the sympathetic, morally-complex account of how good people can end up in disastrous situations. It is the very opposite of today’s tabloid newspaper or social mediasphere, where the mob rushes to make judgements on those who have slipped up. Aristotle thought it extremely important that people see tragic works on a regular basis to counter their otherwise strong inclinations to judge and moralise. A good tragedy should, thought Aristotle, inspire both pity and fear: pity for the tragic hero based on an understanding of how easy it is to make the slip that leads to disaster; and fear for oneself as one realises how open our lives are to careering out of control. All of us could quite quickly come apart if ever events chose to test us.
Tragedy is meant to be a corrective to easy judgement, it exists to counter our natural instincts to admire only the successful, to spurn all those who fail, and to dismiss unfortunates as losers.
We’re currently very uncomfortable around the idea of a good person not succeeding. We’d rather say that they weren’t good at all than embrace a far more disturbing and less well-publicised thought: that – in fact – the world is very unfair. But without the idea of tragedy, we make existence for everyone far crueller and far more judgemental than it really need be. It’s time to look back in time to recover an extremely important idea.
It can be so hard to forgive because – so often – we simply are in the right and the scale of the folly, thoughtlessness and meanness of others seems utterly beyond our own measure. But there are two inviolable ideas which should nevertheless, in the face of the grossest behaviour, be kept in mind to increase our chances of cutting others a little slack.
Firstly: we must remember how the other person got there, to this place of idiocy and cruelty. Every irritating fault in another person has a long history behind it. They have become like this because of flaws in their development, which they did not choose for themselves. They were shaped by troubles which we cannot see but which we can know exist. The arrogant person was trapped (at some key point in their personal evolution) in an environment where being modest and reasonable seemed to guarantee they’d be trampled on. The hyper-critical individual has lived too much, as their personality was growing, around people who couldn’t take a gentle hint – so they came to rely on blunt assertions. The frustratingly timid, mousy person was (at some stage) terrified; the show-off learned their irritating manner around people who were hard to please. Behind every failing – behind everything that’s wrong and infuriating about those we meet – is a decisive trauma encountered before someone could cope with it properly. They are maddening but they got to be this way without meaning to. To forgive is to understand the origins of evil and and cruelty.
Secondly, and very strangely, there are difficult things about you too. Of course, not in this area. Not in any area remotely connected to the sort of lapses that destroy your faith in humanity. But in some areas, quiet areas that you forget about as soon as you’ve travelled through them, you too are a deeply imperfect and questionable individual. Gently, you have – in your own way – betrayed. Nicely, you have been a coward. Modestly, you have forgotten your privileges. Unthinkingly, you have added salt to the wounds of others. We don’t need to know anything about you to know this as a certainty. We must forgive because – not right now, not over this, but one day, over something – we need to be forgiven.
We would – in the past – regularly have looked up to the heavens for this forgiveness. We do that less and less. But that doesn’t attenuate the need for some moments when we limber up to utter that most implausible word ‘sorry’ – or indeed stretch our ethical imagination in order to pronounce those even more arduous and unnatural worlds, ‘I forgive you.’