In the opening scene of “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens not only introduces Ebenezer Scrooge — a miser’s miser, and one of the great characters of the Victorian era — but also the key theme of the book.
After turning his nephew out of his office, Scrooge is visited by two gentlemen, who are raising money to buy “some meat and drink, and means of warmth” for the poor.
Scrooge turns out to be rather a bit different from other businessmen they’ve approached. “What shall I put you down for?” one of the fundraisers says. “Nothing!” Scrooge says, to which the man asks if he would like to be anonymous. “I wish to be left alone,” Scrooge famously replies.
Scrooge of course was a foul little fellow, deplorable in his manners and contemptible in his empathy for others.
This, though, is the time of year when appeals of one kind or another are seen, read and heard everywhere, and we should indeed pay heed to what they have to say.
We may have put workhouses — and other elements of Victorian life that gave us the adjective “Dickensian” to describe poverty (sorry, Charles) — far behind us, but let’s not be complacent for a second about the social safety net we’re working hard to keep intact.
As good as it gets, it still has never been strong enough to protect us all.
Lately, I have seen lots of evidence showing how the public web of aid is supported by individual, private gifts of support offered behind the scenes, out of the public view, absent of desire for the limelight.
A friend of mine makes it a goal to make Christmas happen for a local family. There’s a team making sure there’s a turkey dinner sandwich meal available to those who are without the means or access to holiday foods.
A local gym has adopted a family, and the members take care of what they need.
There’s a sock drive — a brilliant idea, because socks are so common we forgot how practical and valuable they are to people who can’t afford them.
I know of many acts of kindness and generosity, not necessarily connected to Christmas drives. One is an informal group that collects personal hygiene products for women getting out abusive relationships in rural communities. A dentist I know has always stepped up to supply toothpaste and brushes.
There are also bake sales for people who are sick or who face unexpected costs as a result of their illness.
People want to help each other out. We’re wired to be good. We see people in pain, and in conflicted, complicated situations. At this time of year, no matter what your faith or lack thereof, people draw together.
But for many people, their life circumstances are such that they cannot be with their family — or more painfully, their family members will not be with them.
This isn’t about snarking on corporate donations. Often, such big gifts prime the pump for other gifts. We need companies to behave ethically and be grounded in the community, to be the opposite of friend Ebeneezer, and to understand how the corporate world has a stake in creating and supporting a climate of philanthropy.
This is about shining a light on the power of individual action from people who want to do good for its own sake, and who know that avoiding recognition somehow gives the purpose a deeper meaning.
We know a small donation does not solve the root causes of problems. Over the years, I’ve come to see that poverty is one word to describe situations that can also involve words like mental health, addictions, violence, literacy – the list goes on.
Those are problems baskets of good food, warm clothes, toys and household goods will not eradicate.
But they offer room for hope to grow. They give a moment where people can draw a breath and then keep going. They remind us and them we are not alone.
These small acts of kindness keep us connected to others, and so we remain mindful of what needs to be done every other week of the year.
Martha Muzychka is a writer living in St. John’s. She moonlights occasionally as an elf. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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