Sunday, February 26, 2012

What the Left Hand Doesn't Know

When I was a young teenager, the father of a boy about my age died in a work accident. He and I were not close friends, but I lived in a small town where we all knew each other and spent time in the same classes and on the same sports teams at school. He came from a family of poor working class people. His father worked trimming or removing large trees. It was a terrible tragedy for the family.

I remember about that time my mother was sitting at the kitchen table with a $20 bill which was a good chunk of change 40 years ago. She stopped to tell me that she was sending it to the family whose father had died. She told me that the family didn’t have a lot of money and that the only breadwinner had been lost. As the father was self-employed, there would likely be no insurance of any kind to help the family. This small act of love; a mother taking the time to teach a son the right thing to do made a huge imprint. She did these kind of things often. She told me to always go to the door to meet your date and to escort her back to the door at the end of the evening. She taught me that the man should always walk on the street side of a woman. To some these may seem chauvinistic, but to me it is about learning to be a good person. The donation to the family was not unique. Many if not most families in the community were helping in some way. What struck me what she told me about giving a such a gift. She said, “we always give these gifts anonymously because it isn’t about calling attention to ourselves, but about the people we help.” We shouldn’t expect to be rewarded for doing a good deed. Otherwise, it isn’t really a deed after all.

This lessons stuck with me and are brought to bear when I read Mathew 6:3, “when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand does.” This is one of my favorites and I just like the way the King James version sounds. Some clergy interpret this to mean that God sees your good deeds and will reward you many times over in heaven. This interpretation suggests we do these deeds for our own selfish interests as opposed to the satisfaction we get from giving quietly, or just doing it because it needs to be done. This is similar to Adam Smith’s quote that “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” Yet he also wrote “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

Is it in our own self interest to give anonymously? Smith would likely say that truly altruistic service is impossible to attain. No matter what, you’re getting something out of it. True—if anonymous—it may only be personal satisfaction but it’s something. You’re getting something that you couldn’t get by doing nothing. To truly give such that the left hand does not know what the right hand does is difficult in this society. The fact that we deduct most of our charity from our taxable income means we receive something in return beyond satisfaction. What would happen to the amount of charitable contributions if we didn’t have a tax incentive? Perhaps it is possible. Secret Santa’s give away $100 bills at random while maintaining a secret identity. We could help someone who is unemployed and no longer able to enjoy discretionary luxuries, perhaps a secret bottle of wine, or some steak from our freezer to brighten their day. Or we could wrap in a piece of paper a $20, $50, or $100 bill and put it in an envelope without a return address. That is what my Mom does.