Art of secret altruism | Sunday Observer

Art of secret altruism

3 September, 2023
Street musicians
Street musicians

Most of us have experienced the warm glow that comes from performing a good deed and getting credit for it. However, there is a special kind of satisfaction that comes from performing good acts and keeping them secret. Those who practise this higher altruism are usually connoisseurs of inner joy at its loftiest refinement.

Doing something good to fellow human beings or even our dumb friends is known by different terms. Some of them are charity, altruism or giving away things you have. You do not have to be a rich person to practise charity because you can give your time or attention freely without much effort to help someone in need. For instance, while you are walking along the street, you might see a man singing a song or playing the flute. Never think that he is a nuisance. Street musicians are a treasure. Stop for a moment, listen to his song and leave a small donation.

When I visited Malaysia some years ago, I saw a group of blind musicians singing and playing various musical instruments in Kuala Lumpur. They were on a small stage a little away from the street. Most of the passers-by stopped for a moment to listen to their songs and leave a donation. Even in Sri Lanka people donate money lavishly to street singers and those who play various musical instruments. Most of them do not ask for a donation and go on singing or playing their instruments.

Degrees of charity

Unknown to most of us, there are eight degrees of charity as set out by Maimonides (1135-1204) who was a philosopher, theologian and physician. According to him, the first degree is to give with reluctance or regret. After giving a donation, some people regret. The second degree is to give cheerfully but not proportionately to the distress of the sufferer. For instance, giving Rs. 2 to a beggar serves no purpose. The third degree is to give cheerfully and proportionately but not until solicited. Some people who are in need of money or food do not beg on the street. You can see such people in remote villages. They usually wait for someone to give them something.

The fourth is to give cheerfully, proportionately and even unsolicited. However, when you place a sum of money in a man’s hand, you get a painful emotion of shame. The fifth is to give to charity in such a way that the distressed person may receive the bounty and know their benefactor. In the distant past, some rich people in England used to tie up a small sum of money in the corner of their cloaks so that the poor might take it unperceived.

The sixth degree is to know the objects of your bounty, but you remain unknown to them. Some people give away houses or other items to needy people without disclosing their identity. In other words, they do not seek publicity for their donations.

The seventh degree is more meritorious than the rest. In the distant past, some charitable people used to keep valuable items in open places to be taken away by poor people. In some parts of Australia, people leave their used furniture and other household items by the roadside to be taken away by needy people.

Finally, the most meritorious of all is to anticipate charity by preventing poverty. You can do this by providing employment to unemployed youth or teaching them a trade. It is something more like giving a fishing rod to a poor man than a fish. A man with a fishing rod will know how to catch fish and live a satisfactory life. In practice, however, most people and organisations do not do so for reasons unknown to us.

Recently I read about a man who visited a home for the aged with food and various other items to be given to the inmates. He also spent a few hours entertaining them with jokes and songs, but he never revealed his identity. When the caretaker wanted to know who he was, he simply told him, “That’s not important.” Cut from the same cloth was an elderly stranger who appeared at a temple. He performed many menial tasks such as cleaning the bathrooms, washing cups and plates and sweeping the compound. After doing a host of such work, he went away quietly promising to come again.

Jesus Christ

The art of such secret altruism does not come naturally. It has to be cultivated because it goes against the grain of your ego. Such benefactors do not crave for publicity. Those who crave for publicity invite the press before handing over a house to a poor family. In the modern society people who practise secret altruism are a vanishing breed.

Rendering charitable services can avoid such pitfalls. Jesus Christ was the supreme preacher and practitioner of rendering charitable services secretly. He avoided ostentatious charity and warned his followers to “Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen by them.” After healing a leper, Jesus Christ sternly told the patient, “See that thou tell no man” and left the scene. People of his calibre are not to be seen in the modern society.

St. Nicholas is reputed to have tossed gifts through windows and hurried anonymously on his way. The device of Santa Claus was derived from St. Nicholas enabling people to know the fun of anonymous giving. It is completely within your power to practise such lofty forms of charity.

In New South Wales, there was a maternity hospital with a special ward for unmarried mothers. Whenever a baby was born to one of the unhappy girls, a bouquet of flowers arrived from an anonymous giver. Some time ago it was reported how an anonymous person settled a patient’s bill in a private hospital.

In a society moving away from high morals we need people who will do benevolent activities quietly without expecting rewards or publicity. They are the only people who would understand William Wordsworth’s memorable words: “The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and of love.”

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