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A Pound for your Trouble

Today I went to a difficult meeting about the care of my 92-year old aunt. Her health has been deteriorating for some time now. It’s not easy to see someone you love but have already lost to Alzheimer’s clinging on to a life which is hardly worthy of the name.

Feeling rather depressed, I went out after the meeting to do some shopping to improve the variety in my aunt’s virtually liquid diet. And when I got to the enormous local supermarket, I realised I didn’t have the necessary £1 coin to release a trolley.

I saw some people coming in with coinless trolleys. So I asked a woman where I could get one. ‘I got mine at the other end of the car park,’ she said. ‘But here, I’ve got a £1’. And she smiled and stretched out her hand to offer me the coin. I was quick to protest. But she was clear: ‘Just bring it back when you’ve finished your shopping. If you can’t find me, put it in the charity box.’

Of course it was only a pound. When I did find her to bring it back, she was half way through what looked like a substantial shop. The pound would hardly have been a loss to her. But the spirit in which she gave it – ‘you’re in need, I can help, I’m not looking for repayment’ -cheered me up after my miserable meeting!

The incident reminded me of an extract I read this week from a new book on the history of philanthropy: Philanthropy from Aristotle to Zuckerberg by Paul Vallely. Vallely describes philanthropy as having ‘two sides to its personality’. One side is strategic and corporate – and impersonal. It is absolutely not disinterested. It aims to harness market forces to philanthropic ends. It looks for a payback of some sort.

The other kind of philanthropy is described as ‘reciprocal’. At its best,’ says Vallely, ‘reciprocal philanthropy is focused on people rather than product, it is rooted in relationship, mutuality and partnership....it comes from the heart as much as the head.’ Reciprocal philanthropy has a social impact – it works for the good of the giver, the receiver and the society in which they live. It is about ‘the common good’. It is a humanising force.

It seemed to me that in a very small way, the generosity of my supermarket meeting had been just that – a humanising force. For me, it was a reminder of the goodness of the wider world after I had spent a couple of hours in ‘the shadow of death’. The gesture and the daffodil bulbs I bought on the same trip – both brought encouraged me to believe in new life.

Generous giving and gracious receiving – are both so simple and yet so difficult sometimes. I believe that both of them need to come from a core of deep goodness within all people – a core which some of us call 'God'.

In a world which sometimes feels pretty dark these days, I find resource in this prayer from the Holocaust years by the prisoner Etty Hillesum: ‘And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters, that we safeguard that little piece of You, God, in ourselves’.

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