When I was growing up, my parents practiced the old custom of tithing. A tenth of the household income was given to a combination of the church and various worthy causes. They taught me to set aside ten percent of my allowance for similar charitable giving. It didn’t matter how much or how little you had, you still made a point to think about and give something to those who had less. It was annoying sometimes—kids tend to want what they want and not think about others when there are Barbie clothes to buy—but in retrospect, it was great life training.
Later, when I was in high school, suffering the miserable caprices of my hormone-addled peers, it occurred to me that there were other aspects to charity besides just giving time and money to good programs and people. There was the attitude thing.
I was not inclined to have a charitable attitude. I was more inclined to be resentful.
I resented my parents for being clueless and forcing me to live under their harsh and punitive regime. I resented the fact that my younger siblings were never held to the same rigorous behavior standards that I was, and that as the oldest, I was always the guinea pig. “Oh,” my mom would say after letting my sisters get their ears pierced when they were eleven when I’d had to wait until I was fourteen, “I realized pierced ears don’t make pre-teens look like prostitutes, after all.” Why didn’t she listen to me when I said exactly that when I was eleven? And twelve? And thirteen? Arg.
I resented my younger sibs because they got privileges and nice things earlier and with less effort that I did. I resented them for using up all the family resources that should have been mine by right of primogeniture: our parents’ time and attention, clothes money, Christmas presents, the budget for European travel. I resented them for wrecking my stuff—I have a Barbie car story of my own, Juliet, but it isn’t as noble as yours. Let’s just say that the words ‘Barbie convertible’ can still cue histrionics in stressful family moments. I resented one sister, in particular, for telling her ninth grade French class, in which I was the TA, that I didn’t know what the word ‘dildo’ meant. Dear God. The humiliation.
I resented the jocks for being cute and making me lust after them because they never looked at me. I resented the rah-rahs for being cuter than I was and flirting with boys. I resented not knowing how to flirt. I resented not being sent to an exclusive boarding school in Switzerland where intellectual curiosity would be valued at least a little more than it was in suburban California. I resented how awful I looked in Gunne Sax dresses. Broad shoulders and a short neck are not well-served by ruffles and poofy sleeves. I resented—well, pretty much everything.
At some point in my overly earnest self-appraisals, it occurred to me that this was something I might consider changing if I didn’t want to enter my twenties as an angry, bitter curmudgeon, old before my time, and permanently sour. I decided to cultivate a charitable attitude.
Fortunately, this isn’t all that hard to do. When people misjudged me, hurt my feelings, or in any way failed to see and acknowledge my general awesomeness, I learned to let it go. I thought about what might have been going on in their day to make them mean and horrible. I decided to reserve judgment about their worth and their estimation of mine. I could always come back later, pronounce their doom and resent the besneezus out of them if I felt like it.
That didn’t happen. Much. And I started to look at people and see what they were good at and what made them anxious, what they liked and how they wanted to be perceived. And I started to say nice things when I noticed them, like “You sang that solo beautifully,” even when I wasn’t thrilled that they sang it better than I did. When people seemed mean and awful to me, I looked for something good in them, and I mentioned it when I found it.
Probably the most important people to whom I applied my new found tolerance and charitable attitude were my parents, sisters and brother. They were also the hardest ones to make it work with, but I tried really, really hard. And now, decades later when my siblings and parents are my best friends, I still try. It isn’t as hard. Most of the time. It can still be a challenge, but it’s worth the effort.
So for me, charity often takes the form of offering an open mind and heart to those closest to me, as well as the occasional open wallet and open hand offered to those less fortunate. It’s an everyday thing. And it beats the heck out of resentment and anger.