In the legendary and epic Masanvi of Rumi, there’s a beautiful, albeit a little immodest, tale of a pauper and a miser.
On a hot Arabic summer day, a frail and an old beggar knocked on a rich man’s door in the hope of alms. Seeing his pitiable state, he was let in by the guards and asked to wait in the verandah.
As soon as the owner of the house came, the beggar pleaded, “Please, sir, can you spare me a piece of bread?”
“What do you think,” the owner scolded him, “this is a bakery?”
“Just one bowl of flour?” he asked with hope.
“Do you see anything here that tells you that this is a flour mill?” the miser mocked.
“Please give me even a leftover piece of meat,” the beggar persisted.
“Get out of here,” the miser shouted. “You think it’s a butcher’s shop?”
“Sorry for troubling you, sir,” the beggar said while leaving, “can I at least have a glass of water?”
“Do you see a river flowing here?”
The owner ordered his guards to throw the old man out.
“Wait!” the beggar waved.
Before they could stop him, he rushed inside the home and began urinating.
Rumi continues poetically:
The owner, almost speechless with shock, shouted ‘hey!’,
‘Since this place is clearly a ruin,’ came the gruff reply,
‘Where nothing is to be found of any worth at all,
It will at least serve to answer nature’s call.
The message here I will make quite clear to you.
Since not a falcon, royally trained hunting to do,
Nor a peacock designed to please and charm the eye,
Nor a parrot gifted with speech that makes one sigh;
Nor a nightingale in the garden making lover’s cry,
Nor a messenger hoopoe, nor stork nesting on high;
Then exactly what quality is it that you possess,
That anyone would wish from you to purchase?
While I appreciate neither the beggar’s nor the owner’s conduct, I quite like the message in the story. Nature is full of beautiful and useful creatures. It has trees, plants, birds and animals that serve a purpose in the divine and intricate play of survival and sustenance. Unlike a peacock, parrot, or a nightingale, says Rumi, we have no special gifts. So, what value are we adding to the world? And, if we have not the heart to part with a tiny portion of what we have then of what good is our life?
My focus today is charity. If you take a somewhat mystical view then it’s not even possible to do charity because whatever we have in possession is something we have taken from someone else. We may call it bona fide earning or a noble exchange, yet, the truth remains that everything we have is simply a private accumulation of what was already there in the society. I’m not suggesting that you are not the rightful owner or that you should give it all away, but at the same time, charity is a deeply spiritual act.
Charity is not just measured in monetary donations. Compassion too is charity as is empathy. When you help someone in any which way you can, you are exercising charity. It could be as simple as helping a lady stow her luggage in the overhead compartment on the plane, or giving that window seat to the child next to you. Giving a smile to the one who hurt you is charity too as is sharing your bread.
Interestingly, not surprisingly though, thesauri list the following synonyms for the word charity. Compassion, kindness, sympathy, kind-heartedness, graciousness, consideration, concern, tolerance, leniency. When you practice or feel any of these, you are exercising charity.
Charity is not an expense or a gift. It is your contribution to the society. If you ask me, it is every person’s social and moral obligation. Besides, what you have stored in you can only be known from what you give out. Whether you have love, money, arrogance, anger, compassion or kindness, you’ll give out what you have in you.
Just like you save money, bit by bit and every penny adds up, similarly, every little act of kindness counts. Every small gesture of compassion boosts your spiritual savings. Because, that’s what charity is: it’s your spiritual savings account. When you need peace and inner strength, you draw from this account. It is where your good karma is recorded.
A man who was born into a very rich family led an extravagant and self-centered life rarely ever giving out anything in charity. From farmhouses to penthouses and everything in between, he owned many properties. When he died and crossed over to the other world, he was allotted a small cell to live in. He could barely lie down in there.
“There must be a mistake,” he protested. “I was born in a mansion and had all the luxuries on earth. Why suddenly this pigeonhole for my living space? Did my good karma exhaust or what?”
“Well,” the angel said, “we built whatever we could from whatever you sent us.”
While your charity may not be funding your mansion in the heavens, it is certainly building your wealth in the other world. And by “other world”, I’m not alluding to some celestial plane but your own inner world of emotions, your spiritual world of blessings. If you can’t donate money, if you can’t tithe, then consider giving away your old clothes, or something. If nothing, at least offer kind words to others. Be gentle.
Here’s charity in a nutshell: Help whenever, wherever, however and whoever you can. With whatever you can sensibly spare.
Make no mistake, charity is not an ordinary act but a position of immense privilege (read here). Reflect on it and you’ll discover what a blessing it is to be able to give something back to our world.