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December 28, 2011

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Empathy a major part of charity

CHARITY is one of those words much used and misused over the years. On the one hand, it fills us with a warm feeling as we imbue the word with meaning along the lines of "helping others," "assisting the poor" or "providing for those less fortunate than ourselves." On the other hand it can annoy us at times as we come upon incidences of maladministration in charitable organizations, we feel "taken in" by organized begging or we become fatigued with the seemingly endless array of worthy causes which contend for our attention and resources.

And yet, despite all of this, giving to charity continues to feature strongly in the culture and practice of many societies. This can be as simple as bartering and exchanging materials or foodstuffs in underdeveloped economies to the movement, by developed economies, of significant amounts of money or resources to areas of need around the world. And many countries also sign up to contributing a percentage of their resources to world development funds, though this pledge is often more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Charity can be viewed in a number of ways. Historically it was often tied up with the "alms for the poor" concept, involving religious or philanthropic instructions. Sometimes it was caught up in societal and ecclesiastical moral or dogmatic imperatives. There was not necessarily any experiential link between the giver and the receiver; it was rather formulaic. Dickens' excoriation of Victorian society in his writing, most notably in "Oliver Twist," evidenced such a divided world in 19th century London, for instance.

With the "shrinking" of the world in the 20th century, the rise of intercontinental travel and the advent of instant news the plight of "the poor" became much more real and took on a new face - the bloated children in the Biafran war of the 1960s, the spectres of emaciation in the Ethiopian Famine of the 1980s, the decimation of people groups in Africa in the 2000s, for example.

In parallel, the people and organizations who seek to deal with these disasters became more professional and bolder in seeking our assistance. One of the searing incongruities of this Christmas time of year remains the image of the well-fed Western family tucking into a feast while watching an aid appeal for people who have not eaten for days and have little prospect of doing so in the near future, or ever.

There is a temptation to throw our hands in the air and claim fatigue. What on earth can one do in the face of such pain and helplessness?

Even more so, what can a school or students do that will be of any significance. A tart reply would be - "not a lot." Yet, that would be giving in to pessimism and, in a school context, if anything, surely we are optimistic. In fact our profession is the ultimate exercise in optimism. And so we encourage our students to be kind, caring, generous and considerate toward others. In our increasingly interconnected world we now have the opportunity to empathize with people from around the globe. And here in China we have 20 percent of the planet's population on our doorstep.

Before concluding with a comment on The Giving Tree charity initiative, which is a notable feature of the charitable giving of many schools in this city, I would like to share with you the essence of all of this through a small cameo I witnessed when working in a school in Africa. As in many schools around the world, during the Christmas season a Christmas tree was placed strategically in the school under which students were invited to place, anonymously, a present for a disadvantaged boy or girl of their own age. This school was on the equator and, even with the December Harmattan, the temperature was in the high 20s, so the tree was in a corner of the playground. Quite early one morning, before most of the students had arrived I observed a G2/Y3 student approach the tree with a present tucked under her arm. She paused for a while at the tree before carefully placing the present under its branches, making sure that it would be out of the day's sun and rain. After a moment she turned and ran off to play with friends who were arriving. She did not know she had been observed; she still does not. But this small incident spoke volumes, I felt, about what giving and charity is all about.

In similar fashion The Giving Tree initiative - in support of migrant school children in Shanghai - undertaken by schools has been an "eye-opener." Students and families have been extraordinarily generous in their giving to this very worthy cause. But, of greater moment, has been the obvious commitment of many students to being involved in the process, thinking about the child they are buying for and trying to choose something appropriate. In many ways this is at the heart of charity - recognizing another human being, a person in different circumstances than me, but another human being to whom I am giving some of myself as well as my gift - my thought, my time, my empathy.

In this season of gifts and giving let us all remember the real people from whom we have received and to whom we give.


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