Taking Back the Turkey: A Lesson in Empathy and Charity

Taking Back the Turkey: A Lesson in Empathy and Charity November 30, 2016


My mother and her friends were sipping coffee together after their daily Rosary. They were in the comfortable, sunny kitchen of a mom I’ll call Gertrude, who lived in a wealthy part of town. The conversation turned to Gertrude’s sons’ boy scout activities.

“Last year, we took a Thanksgiving dinner to a poor family. We brought the turkey, we brought the bag of stuffing, yams, marshmallows, can of pumpkin, sack of potatoes, everything. I thought the children would be so happy, you know? I expected them to be,”Gertrude clasped her hands to her breastbone and grinned like Shirley Temple,  “So excited, you know? But they didn’t even look up from the TV. They didn’t even say thank you. They didn’t look at us. One of the adults just waved his hand and said ‘put it over there.'”

The other mothers, none of whom had ever needed food assistance or a charity Thanksgiving, murmured their horror at the poor family’s lack of gratitude.

One of the mothers had an answer. “I’d have said, ‘well, if you don’t want this, I’ll just leave then,’ and then I would have walked right out.”

The mothers murmured their approval.

“I should have said that,” agreed Gertrude, stirring her coffee. “I wish I’d said that very thing.”

Before you start piling on Gertrude, I want to stress that she was actually a very nice lady. She was generous with her time and talent– she helped my mother in the children’s theater, she was always run off her feet with boy scouting. She hosted youth group meetings in her house. She arranged swing dancing lessons for all the homeschooled teenagers, back when swing dancing lessons were considered a way of preserving chastity at parties.

But she did, apparently, have an unfortunate, culturally encouraged blind spot.

She couldn’t empathize with the poor.

She apparently honestly hadn’t thought about the fact that the poor had feelings, and that there was no reason to believe that their feelings were not similar to her own.

Poor people are people, and people are often embarrassed when they can’t make ends meet. I know I am. It burns when you have to ask for help. Imagine how humiliated you’d be if the only way you could get a turkey dinner was to have it delivered to your kitchen, raw, by condescending uniformed boy scouts from the wealthy part of town. Imagine if their upper-middle-class mothers came along, right into your kitchen. Some of you would probably rather starve to death than accept such a meal, and that’s understandable. But what if it was your kids who were going to go without dinner?

You might sign up for the boy scout option, for your children’s sake, but you wouldn’t like it. You’d feel embarrassed. You might express your embarrassment by refusing to make eye contact, and by saying as little as possible.

I hope the people bringing you turkey wouldn’t take offense at that, and take it away again.

Everyone, Christian or not, should have a baseline understanding that humans have feelings; and that while our feelings aren’t identical, there’s no reason to believe they’re not similar. If something would make you feel bad, you should understand when other people feel bad. If something would make you not want to make eye contact or hop up and down with stylized glee, it would likely feel the same way to someone else.

Christians have an additional duty: we need to realize that we all are badly in need of charity at all times. The Son of God who is God Himself descended from Heaven to earth, taking the form of a slave, so that His sinful and ungrateful children could be brought to grace. He could have saved us any way He liked; He chose to do it in the most costly way possible, because He views us as that costly. He paid far more than the price of a turkey dinner. He went to more trouble than you’ll ever go to in your charitable giving. Nobody ever could match that gift. No saint, no prophet, no wonder-worker has come close. Saint Maximilian starving to death in a cell block so that one other prisoner might have a shot at getting out of Auschwitz alive, was only a poor imitation. He needed the charity of God, and so do we. We are already beggars being given a King’s feast for free. It’s ridiculous, clownish pride to feel superior to the object of our charity. It’s tragic pride to be angry when the object of our charity doesn’t respond according to our script. We should be on our knees in gratitude to them, for allowing us to imitate our Father a little bit and do a terrible impression of what He does for us. But if we did that, we would embarrass them further, so it’s better to just give in the friendliest way we can and take it with good grace if they respond rudely.

No one should ever perform charitable giving in order to see gratitude. The poor are not your personal pantomime troop. They don’t owe you a show. Yes, people should be gracious when they’re given gifts, but if the reason you’re giving is to see graciousness displayed, you’re not being charitable. You’re being prideful.

Trust me: if you are a human, you do not have any cause to be prideful.

Give to those who ask of you, expecting no reward. Especially don’t expect a fuzzy feeling of self-importance. You won’t get one. But give anyway, as your Father in Heaven gives. And don’t just give. Dare to empathize. Realize that the person in front of you is human.

(image via Pixabay)

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