Sweet Charity

Almsgiving.

The word seems such a far cry from fearlessness, the first of the Divine Qualities from the Bhagavad Gita I set out to explore in this, my year of journeying through twenty-six qualities and how they may (or may not?!) apply to me and my life.

Fearlessness is exciting: it shouts in triumph, and I strongly suspect it has wings. Big, powerful wings.

But almsgiving? It’s reserved. It feels far more likely to speak in a whisper, and to shuffle along in the shadows…

For me, the mere mention of the word almsgiving immediately conjures vivid images of darkly hooded monks holding empty wooden bowls, moving in silent procession along dimly lit cloisters. It seems archaic, and somehow austere, not to mention (from where I’m sitting) very Catholic. Almsgiving always reminds me of religion classes in primary school, when our teachers felt the need to regurgitate the same explanation each and every year when they distributed our cardboard Project Compassion boxes that Lent is a time we were meant to give alms, not arms: the Good Lord wanted our money, not our body parts.

I mean, I get it — giving to those less fortunate than ourselves is part and parcel of spiritual traditions the world over. It’s what makes us decent human beings. It’s coins slipped quietly into donation boxes, dollars slid silently onto collection plates, online donations made without fanfare or fuss from the privacy of personal computer. And it’s important — I genuinely believe that.

But even so, almsgiving is not particularly…exciting?

And even though I did not — and still do not — plan to make any of these dives into the Divine Qualities a specifically religious exercise, it occurred to me that perhaps I need to shed yet more of the baggage I have been hauling around since suriving thirteen years of Catholic school?!

In the light of this conclusion, I sought out the secular — and where better to turn than to the silver screen, and to a beautiful, whimsical romantic comedy released twenty years ago this year,  Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, which is better known to English speaking audiences simply as Amélie.

I watched this (still delightful) film with my elder daughter a few weekends ago, and was struck by the fact that the title character, Amélie, is always trying to do the right thing by people. Being shy, she does so secretly, surreptitiously and — in the case of breaking into a neighbour’s apartment — downright stealthily. And even though Amélie doesn’t always get things quite right (let’s face it: the break in is completely illegal), for the most part she makes a genuine effort to improve the lives of the people around her, all while attempting to conquer her own feeling of isolation.

Weirdly, Amélie could almost be said to be about almsgiving in action: as Amélie cultivates generosity towards others, her insular world begins to open up. Without giving too much of the plot away, over the course of the film Amélie befriends a lonely old man, Raymond Dufayel, who lives in her apartment building, painting a copy of the same Renoir picture year after year. She walks a blind man across a street, rapidly telling him all the things she can see so he may get an impression of the hustle and bustle of Montmatre. She hatches a unique plan involving a garden gnome to encourage her father to broaden his horizons. She stands up for Lucien, the grocer’s assistant, who is regularly ridiculed by his boss. She reunites people with long lost possessions. And, ultimately, she falls in love and — with encouragement from Monsieur Dufayel — finds the courage to pursue Nino, the man she has fallen for, and to give him her heart.

Watching Amélie made me realise several things.

That almsgiving at its simplest and most perfunctory is making a donation of money or a possession we no longer require.

With greater thought and commitment, almsgiving may involve giving our services, our intellectual property, our time. You might prepare a hot meal for someone, or draft a letter for a person who doesn’t share your particular professional expertise (whether that be legal or financial or whatever), or you may offer to drive someone somewhere even though it’s out of your way.

Almsgiving doesn’t have to be as exciting as fearlessness for it to be fulfilling. And I think I can safely let go of the idea that almsgiving is something that has to be done — like it seemed to, with no small amount of drudgery, every Lent, every year when I was at school. It’s a choice, and the more thought and better the intention behind the choice, the more fulfilling the act.

Ultimately, there is true power doing things, however small, with great love.

Mind yourselves,

BJx

This Fearless Life

At the beginning of each year I attempt to find a word or theme to guide me through the twelve months ahead. It makes sense to me to do this, not only because here in the Southern Hemisphere the school year mirrors the calendar year, but also because my birthday falls in January. I find it useful to embrace an overarching concept that often ends up informing what I do, what I read, what I think, and even the way I approach my life.

Last year, I took delight as my guiding principle after dipping into Ross Gay’s Book of Delights. Prior to that I (perhaps less successfully) delved into the lives of diverse people — Marcus Aurelius, Virginia Woolf, Keith Richards — to see how their perspectives might inform my own. Another year I chose a different Word of the Month to engage with.

In 2021, I’m taking myself going down a slightly different path again — one decidedly unfamiliar to me, raised as I was in a reasonably conservative Roman Catholic home by parents who remain steadfast in their faith and who chose to send me to Catholic schools throughout my primary and secondary education. This year, inspired by reading Jay Shetty’s book Think Like a Monk, I’ve chosen to explore the Divine Qualities outlined in Chapter 16 of the Bhagavad Gita.

There are 26 Divine Qualities listed in the Gita, so I am hoping to tackle one every couple of weeks. Quite obviously, I haven’t been raised Hindu and have little experience with the Vedic tradition other than what I’ve learned from various teachers when attending yoga classes from time to time, which means I am engaging with each quality as outsider. From the oustet I think it is important to state that I do not intend to bring a religious slant to any of my posts and I mean absolutely no disrespect to believers in this or in any religion: I am simply using the Divine Qualities mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita as a starting point and exploring how these, as I understand them, apply to my own life.

The first Divine Quality mentioned in the Bhagavad Gita is FEARLESSNESS.

What a way to kick things off, huh?!

You may, given the current state of the wider world, now have an inkling of understanding as to why I was intrigued by the Divine Qualities: given that much of 2020 involved a global pandemic, trade wars, continuing environmental crises and particular politicians peddling lies and failing to protect their own people, there were many things about last year that made me FEARFUL. I often wondered, in 2020, whether my family would stay physically safe in the face of an invisible disease and mentally strong when confronted with multiple lockdowns, whether my husband’s business and those of his clients would survive the associated economic upheaval, and whether the world was actually going to hell in a handbasket.

Fearlessness? I’ve never lived through a year more prone to making people fearful, or for provoking (at best) garden variety anxiety on a daily, if not hourly, basis!

Fearlessness…

I have to admit the word shocked me when I first read it, right at the top of the list of Divine Qualities. It felt like such a foreign concept in these strange and unusual times.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to embrace fearlessness.

Many of us spend far too much time worrying about — or even fearing — things beyond our control. What if we stopped fearing what other people might think of us, or whether we’re good enough, or if the timing is right? What if we started to trust ourselves and our abilities more, to do what is right and responsible, to make our best effort every time with the knowledge and resources we have?

For me, staring fearlessness in the face meant asking myself:

  • What if I actually finish my novel?
  • What if I allow myself time to exercise every day?
  • What if I publish more on this blog, even if it exposes me to potential ridicule?
  • What if I say no to stuff that no longer serves me?
  • What if I say yes to trying new things?

And I’ve decided, on balance, that all of those things are worth doing.

That it’s worth letting go of fear and trusting the universe (or God, or whatever you believe in) has my back.

That it’s important to have faith that the vast majority of people on this planet are doing their best and are kind and decent human beings.

That it’s time I lived with fearlessness!