In the beginning of the Thanksgiving/Christmas season, charity seems to become more important than most other times of the year. Should we consider it an obligation?
I don’t think we have an obligation to help the poor because the definition of obligation is a duty imposed legally or socially. At no time during the course of history have the social classes legally or socially agreed to a contract which imposes a duty on either class. The wealthy, however, does face the consequence of killing hope for a better life for the poor. Whoever has no hope cannot be defeated in an ultimate confrontation.
My mother died when I was fourteen years old, and I was left in the house with a father whose behavior was rooted in the system that the father provided food and shelter for the family and nothing else. I also had two brothers, one was mentally ill and the other was drunk. He wasn’t an alcoholic because he refused to go to the meetings. On his good days the mentally ill brother told me I could do anything I wanted. He wasn’t responsible for what he did on the bad days so I won’t dwell them. The drunk had no good days. The addictive personality is unstable whether it is under the influence or not. On his worst days—or rather nights after my father had gone to bed—he would drink beer after beer and tell me I had no common sense, I thrived on “raising hell” in the house, I spread rumors through our small town that he was a drunk, and I was doomed to failure no matter what I did.
The drunk was under absolutely no obligation to me. At no time after my birth did we agree to treat each other with respect and help each other at times of need. The consequence, however, was as I grew up I had no hope of ever having a normal relationship with him. The few times I bothered to bring up the topic, he would say, “Oh, we were just kids then.” Ultimately, I severed all contact with him.
As my father was slowly dying after a major stroke, my brother called and asked in a slurred voice, “Are ya comin’?”
“You’re drunk,” I said firmly and then hung up.
When I arrived at my father’s funeral I found out the drunk wasn’t coming because I was there. He also refused to let his two daughters go to their grandfather’s funeral.
I presumed his daughters never forgave him for denying them of the right to say good bye to the nice old man who always gave them candy. When the drunk’s wife had lost all hope that he would not stop terrorizing them during his rages, she divorced him. The girls never spoke to him again and only referred to him by his first name and not daddy.
Then one of the daughters wrote me a letter saying she wanted to take a chance to reach out because she had been told I was nothing like her father. We met and became family. The other daughter was more aloof. I supposed she didn’t want to take any chances. Her hope that she could have a relationship with a father figure had died. Eventually she became friendly too.
My brother died of a heart attack in his favorite chair in the living room of his desolate house, and no one noticed for a week until the neighbors smelled something unpleasant.
In the meantime, I walked the daughter who first contacted me down the aisle at her wedding. The second daughter came to trust me so much that she asked my wife and me to take care of her son while she was having a delicate pregnancy. I was not under any obligation to help my nieces, but the consequences were very worthwhile.
So it is with us. We can create excuses and preach a doctrine of self-responsibility all we want. When we look at history— most notably the French and Russian revolutions—we realize the practical consequences of no obligation to those less fortunate than ourselves.