Reflecting on rejecting requests for help leads me to a different question: when should help be requested? And how should it be requested?
Dickens’ genius is best expressed in his sketching of “characters” and personalities. In this context, one that immediately comes of mind is Harold Skimpole in Bleak House. He is introduced by one of his benefactors, Mr. Jarndyce: “he is grown up – he is at least as old as I am – but in simplicity and freshness, and enthusiasm, and a fine guileless inaptitude for all worldly affairs, he is a perfect child.” (p. 82)
Finding himself deeply in debt, and threatened to be thrown in jail, he manages to find young people who have very little money to pay his creditor. That to do so is for them a sacrifice does not even cross his mind. “…you see me utterly incapable of helping myself and entirely in your hands! I only ask to be free.” (p. 90) Not only does not Mr. Skimpole feel indebted toward his benefactors, but he artfully turns the situation around and rhapsodizes about the blessing of being able to help others. If only they would realize how fortunate they are! It must be an exhilarating feeling which, alas, he is deprived of being chronically insolvent. How Harold Skimpole envies such people! What a marvelous feeling is must be to guarantee other people’s freedom. He, Harold Skimpole, has such a love of nature and butterflies. How awful would it be if he were deprived of this joy! In fact, he feels himself to be the benefactor of those who have helped him.
One needs Dickens’ genius to sketch this as powerfully as he does. Even though some might contest that Mr. Skimpole is an invention of Charles Dickens’s imagination, I am tempted to challenge their view. In the course of my long life, I have known several people who manage to live very comfortably and satisfy all their hobbies with very little work (they never have a steady job) or, at times, no work at all. Man is a most inventive being when it comes to satisfy his wishes. It is indeed more pleasant to be taken care of and enjoy life, than to have to sweat and toil to pay for one’s daily bread.
Psychologists might refer to Mr. Skimpole as a typical case of “infantilism,” but the fact is that some of us choose to remain a child and thereby appeal to other persons’ pity and kindness. In this field, there is certainly a large gamut of degrees, but that some people are artists at plucking the cords of tender human hearts, cannot be denied. In fact, “infantile” people know instinctively how unwise it would be to turn for help to those who “consider it to be insulting” to receive a request. Such people are “in shock” when asked to do so. Some may think, “Are they out of their mind? I have no obligation toward them; I hardly know them. They are not even one of my relatives. I shall make it clear to them that ‘solicitors are prohibited.’”
I recall that during the war, a young soldier in England sent a telegram to an acquaintance in New York. The content was: “I could use more money.” The prompt reply was: “I could too.” Even though the refusal might have been justified, the promptness of the reply proved that the person in question had some practice in the art of turning down requests.
Who would dream of asking Harpagon (the “hero” in Moliere’s masterpiece, “L’Avare”) for money? According to a servant, this nauseating vice was so deeply ingrained in him that instead of saying; “Je vous donne le bon jour” – “I ‘give’ you good morning” – he says, “Je vous prete le bon jour” – “I ‘lend’ you good morning.” Moliere’s genius makes vices grotesque.
This type of avariciousness is still more dramatically depicted in Honore de Balzac’s “Eugenie Grandet” which is about a father whose vicious avariciousness ruins the life of his wife and daughter. Great literature is often more instructive and illuminating than a text book on the seven capital sins.
Let us go back to our friend Skimpole who does not like to work, and is a genius at finding ways to go through life “unharmed” by this unpleasant burden.
We might vindicate Harold Skimpole in recalling that there are types of work which are back breaking, badly paid and often health hazardous. Alas, millions of people accept the job because it is better than starving.
We are then reminded of the Biblical words God spoke to Adam, “In the sweat of your face, you shall eat bread.” (Gen 3. 19) Escape from this daily torment justifies one’s desire to find well paying and rewarding jobs. How many dream of emigrating to the U.S. where, alas, money is often tragically confused with happiness.
There also are people who have the well-earned reputation of never turning down a request, legitimate or illegitimate. If such people are not formed by Christian wisdom, they will inevitably be the victims of all sorts of scams. “Professionals” in this field also have their own list of possible victims.
Leaving this case aside, let us now raise the following question; knowing that some people are incredibly kind hearted and are likely never to turn down a request, is it always legitimate to solicit their help? A detour is called for.
Whereas technology keeps “improving,” alas, the same thing cannot be said of social mores. Each age has its “virtues” and its vices. One cannot claim a priori, that because we have “progressed” in many domains; the same is true of ethics. Granted that some past aberration have been corrected, we cannot claim that our ethical standard today is, ipso facto, higher than the one of the previous generations. Sadly enough, while we can become more “clear sighted” in one domain, we can suffer from moral blindness in others.
Let me be more specific. Stupid racial prejudices (for they truly deserve to be called such) have now rightly been condemned and “officially” abolished in so far as moral evils can be totally eliminated by laws. Who would dream today to refuse a black family to rent an apartment in a building inhabited by white people? The abysmal stupidity of judging people according to the color of their skin, is now “officially” not only acknowledged, but moreover, condemned by law.
Does it mean that this evil is totally eradicated? The answer is that man, wounded by original sin, must always remain vigilant. Most diseases are chronic and while remaining dormant for a while, will “resurge” if given a chance to do so.
We are definitely more “socially conscious” that our grandparents were. Today, it would be inconceivable that rich people who have live-in servants would not guarantee that they have running water and a toilet. Yet, in the early 20th century, it often was the case. Today it would plainly be unacceptable and moreover, there is a very good chance that helpers would request their own television. Who can, today, live without one?
I know of a very rich lady born in the late 19th century whose house was heated, except for the servants’ quarters. “Why in the world would they need heat?”
The point I am trying to make is that, unfortunately, “moral improvements” in one domain do not prevent other ethical domains to be shamefully neglected.
In past ages, it was a matter of course that the younger generation had a feeling of respect and awe for elderly people. Their “white hair” guaranteed their being respected and looked up to. One only need read books about Indian tribes: they were under the authority and guidance of “elders” who were always consulted when a grave decision had to be taken. They were respectfully looked up to. Today, it is so far from being the case that most people dye their hair as soon as some of them turned gray. It is almost “shameful” to be getting old and therefore this “disgrace” must be “hidden.” I personally recall my love for my grandmother’s white hair; I thought it was beautiful.
In the past a person over forty or fifty was assumed to be better qualified to give a wise advice than one just out of college.
Experience is something precious that textbooks do not and cannot teach. Today because of our ingrained materialism, young people are more highly valued than older ones. They are “dynamic”and will bring “new ideas.” The past is past and should be buried. The young symbolize health, strength, and invention. Old categories ought to be replaced. Everything should be new.
Obviously if one values a person according to his physical strength, if “materialism” in all its various forms is the dominant philosophy of the day, old persons are “useless” – good enough to be relegated to a home where they will inevitably sit on the death-bench. As a matter of fact, assisted suicide is an act of “compassion”; an important dimension of this “virtue” was overlooked in the past. Today we have “progressed” and clearly perceive that when a person’s life has run its course, when his possibilities of benefiting society have been exhausted, it is “charitable” and kind to put him to sleep, without having to undergo the agonizing business of dying. One should die “with dignity.” The person has a “right” to decide when and how he will leave this planet. The noble “virtue of compassion” has been hijacked by materialism.
Nourished in and by what Dietrich von Hildebrand dubbed our “anti-culture”, young people have been fed on a disastrous philosophical diet, claiming that the value of a person is to be gauged by his “productivity.” “Tell me how much you produce; I will tell you who you are.” Far from being looked up to, an old person is looked down upon as an unproductive member of society. Inevitably it makes young people assume that elderly and old people have nothing to teach them. Place them in front of computers you will immediately perceive how “intellectually deficient” they are.
As human strength inevitably decreases with age, and as persons tend to live longer and longer, the elderly will become an unbearable burden for the younger generation who will have to provide for their ever increasing medical needs. The logical consequence is that for the “good of society,” they should be eliminated. Not only are they useless, but they no longer enjoy life anyway. This is the “ethical” and “logical” justification of assisted suicide.
In one of my classes at Hunter, I recall making a distinction between “scholarship” and “wisdom.” I asked my students whether they knew scholars. Practically all of them raised their hands: “My professor of history just published a book with hundreds and hundreds of footnotes and quotations. I was deeply impressed by his incredible knowledge.”
Then I raised another question: “Do you know a wise person, someone whose judgment you would trust then facing grave personal decisions, someone who knows ‘how to live?’” Deadly silence. All of a sudden, a tiny girl from Puerto Rico raised her hand and said shyly, “My old grandmother is someone I fully trust. She left school in the third grade but always seems to know what life is all about. She is the one I turn to when in need. Years ago, I had a cleaning woman who, though not particularly efficient, was a gem of a person. I enjoyed talking to her, and was always enchanted by her remarks; everything was “sound.”
At one point, I said to her: “Alberta, I much enjoy talking to you. Everything you say is so wise.” She cut me short and said, “You see, Mrs. Von Hildebrand, I have not been ruined by ‘education.’ I left school in the third grade.” How many of our students leave college, deprived of the crumbs of wisdom they had then they entered these places of “higher learning?” According to Msgr. Heyde, chairman of the Newman Club at Hunter, 65 percent of persons of Catholic faith studying in this noble place of “higher learning” lost their faith by their senior year, having been illuminated by scholarship to distinguish between facts and “myths.”
Let me be more concrete. When I was a child in Belgium most people did not have cars (and were spared the curse of traffic jams); public transportation was the normal way of going to work. Trolley cars and buses were inevitably overcrowded. Yet I cannot recall that young or middle age people did not immediately get up and yield their seat to elderly people or mothers with young children. It was a matter of course, and ingrained in education.
This is rarely the case in our “democratic” society: one man, one vote. No one is superior to another (except then he is younger and more productive).
This introduction leads me back to my previous query: when should help be requested and when it is improper to do so? The result of our analysis will shed light on the “moral state” that Dietrich von Hildebrand called – as mentioned above – “our anti culture.”
Let us imagine the following scenario. An elderly person (and today elderly mostly refers to people over eighty) has the well deserved reputation of being generous and kind-hearted. One will never see the sign on her door: “Do not disturb.” A young person (whom she hardly knows) accompanied by a friend (she does not know at all) asks her to be her guests for several days. This would enable them to go sight-seeing in New York with minimal expenses.
Am I wrong in asserting that never would have people of my generation dare make such a request. I purposely say “dare” because the fact that they even thought of it, betrays a grave lack of reverence for “white hair” when the person in question has them. Before making such a request they should sincerely have asked themselves whether the burden placed on an elderly person might not be out of proportion with the subjective advantage of saving money? Have they asked themselves the question: “what actually is old age?”
In fact, it is chronic fatigue, weakness, arthritis which makes opening a can difficult, lack of balance, short-time memory, which means to have to do something three times before succeeding. I am of course referring to “healthy” old people. One of the tacit rules of ethics is that to avoid placing objective “evils” on others should have precedence over subjective interest. They should meditate on the wise Spanish proverb: : “ En viaje largo, paja pesa”. But for these young people their personal interest is so much in the forefront of their consciousness that it does not even occur to them that an additional task, small as it seems to them, can be very exhausting for people close to ninety. My diagnosis is that they are afflicted by a disease that I shall dub: “selfish lack of imagination.”
Young people often want to “see the world” to have seen everything before they are twenty five.
But today, “to have a good time with no expense has psychological priority for many members of the young generation. The conclusion that I would like to draw is that wise educators should “re teach” the younger generation that age calls for respect.
Dietrich von Hildebrand was right when he wrote: Reverence is the mother of all virtues. It is a virtue which is sadly lacking today, and is even expressed in the attitude of many Catholics in Churches where the Blessed Sacrament is present.
To show respect for “white hair” might be a first step to regain reverence for the “sacred.”
Editor's note: This is the second of Dr. von Hildebrand's reflections on charity. To read the first entry please click here.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.