In History, Philosophy, Words

I don’t know about you, but every so often I like to throw off the shackles and spend some time reading through my bank statements; partly to marvel at the phenomenon that whatever comes in, the same amount and slightly more always seems to go out; and partly to make sure I’m not still subscribing to Which? or paying for two different breakdown services – or, worse still, paying for the same breakdown service twice through two different brokers.

There’s nothing worse than breaking down on the motorway, waiting three hours for a tow truck and then two coming along at once, arguing over who’s going to tow you away and pulling your car in half.

Anyway, I worked out this week that I could afford a more lavish and self-indulgent lifestyle if I cancelled the standing orders to various charities that I seem to have accumulated over the years. I’m no Bill Gates but, you know, a water pump here, a cataract operation there, it all mounts up. How many donkeys can one man save? But that’s not really the spirit, is it?

The concept of charity, in the sense of love and compassion for your fellow man (or woman), has clearly been with us since the early days when it was the done thing to save your chums from the jaws of the sabre-toothed tiger, rather than leaving them to be munched and then bagging the tiger for yourself. Despite the brutality and selfishness that you might consider the default human condition if you based your judgement of the species on headlines and history books, it’s not in our nature to leave one another to suffer and die. Charity is in our DNA. It’s what has enabled us to become the dominant species on the planet. That and our love of formation dancing.

The world’s great religions have always had charity woven into them as an obligation. Zakat, for example, the third pillar of Islam, requires all Muslims, rich or poor, to give away 2.5% of their annual savings. The mitzvah of Tzedakah is a similar concept in Judaism. Christianity isn’t quite so prescriptive but St Paul’s appeal to “put away childish things” and abide by faith, hope and charity (by which he meant love and compassion for others), “the greatest of which is charity”, has not gone unheeded by the church in all its forms.

The word charity stems from the Latin ‘caritas’, meaning ‘affection or esteem’ and it came into English from the French, who, possibly out of a sense of guilt for shooting people in the eye and brutally subjugating saxons, had already started using the word ‘charité’ to mean compassion and the giving of alms. Britain’s oldest charitable institution, the Hospital of St Cross and Almshouse of Noble Poverty in Winchester, was founded in the 1130s. By the late 1600s we had worked out that you can’t rely on governments and taxes to sort out the world’s real problems and the first recognised charities were being founded for specific philanthropic causes. In 1739, Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital for abandoned orphans in London established the blueprint for most charities as we know them today.

And boy do we know them! With approximately 170,000 registered charities in the UK, all vying for your spare cash, the competition to stand out has become intense, leading to a new syndrome, known henceforth as ‘altrutation’ – the sensation of feeling altruistic and irritated at the same time. But the power of giving is undeniable. Today, thanks to charity, there are people out climbing Kilimanjaro or trekking through the Andes who previously had never experienced life outside Hampstead.

While Faith and Hope sit staring forlornly from the bay window of the Sunrise Care Home for Retired Virtues, Charity is out there tripping the light fantastic, seducing celebrities into insane acts of profile-raising self-flagellation, cajoling wealthy financiers at gala dinners into bidding their bonuses on one of David Beckham’s signed jockstraps, and daring ordinary folk to splash out on a load of outward bound gear and embark on exciting and expensive expeditions into the unknown – well, unknown to them.

Imagine if Captain Scott had had a Just Giving page! Or Edmund Hillary. Or Neil Armstrong… The money they could have raised!

Dear Friend,
This week, myself and two colleagues are endeavouring to land on the moon. If we’re successful we hope to advance the progress of mankind and raise money for Comic Relief. I know you get these requests all the time but…

You know the rest. I just received two such emails in the space of a week from friends who are going for a cycle ride in aid of charity. I did the only thing a friend can do in the circumstances: I reported them to the IOC for breaching my personal privacy. That should raise a few quid.

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