A common lesson that many of us were taught in grammar school was what defined an ‘opposite.’ As children we learn that hot and cold are antonyms; as are bad and good, living and dead, love and hate. One statement that I recently heard challenged a childhood preconception of mine. It declared that the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.
If we think about what indifference is, we soon see that it is in stark opposition to love. To be neither hot nor cold toward a person in need is quite a horrific thing. It involves a lackadaisical attitude where we fail to see human beings as individual persons made in the image and likeness of God. If I have a neighbor down the street and do not care if his family is treated unjustly I am acting in an egocentric way. I am being indifferent and not – loving my neighbor as myself.
This idea troubled me and I began to wonder what ways I was acting indifferently toward others. My first thoughts were about homeless men and women whom I had ignored on the street. This notion shifted once again as I began to think not about whom I had ignored, but the reason behind why I had ignored them. I found two reasons.
The first had to do with my resources. I am a recent graduate of James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia and an intern at the Acton Institute who has more debt than money to his name. Since I am not able to fully provide for myself I can only offer a bit of pocket money or volunteer from time to time. Because my resources are limited, my ability to help is limited.
The second reason, I am ashamed to say, is that I do not always take beggars at their word. I find that I am more likely to believe a man who is asking for gas money than a man who is looking to buy food. This may seem judgmental at first, however I do find that there is a logical reason behind my rationale.
On a federal level, our government provides food stamps, housing benefits, medical care, and material welfare that the marginalized and impoverished of society can easily obtain. On a local level many towns and counties have various outreach programs in place. These programs are also funded by taxes, but are more personal than federal aid. On a private level: churches, consignment shops, soup kitchens, food banks, and personal charity can help those in need. The fact that aid to the poor simply exists on a large scale is the answer to my original question. I am more likely to believe a man who is asking me for gas money because there is no such thing as a gas relief program.
When seeing a man asking for food money I may say to myself, “Why should I or anyone bother to help a man on the street who is hungry? He can always go get food stamps, or go to a soup kitchen; a church will take him in.”
It is so easy for me to ignore this man because of the relief programs that are in place. Lo and behold I find myself not engaging in some Samaritan’s dilemma by giving a dollar or two; I simply walk away from him. I am planting a seed of indifference.
I am not advocating for the abolition of government safety nets or private charity. However, the simple fact remains that if less assistance were available I would also be more likely to believe the hungry man. I would also be less likely to judge him and fall into stereotypes which cause me to question his sobriety, mental state, or work ethic. It is only natural that the further I am away from a particular problem, the more I will likely begin to view it as someone else’s problem instead of my own.
We can cultivate a society of indifference by the kinds of laws and relief programs we have in place. The more dependent we become on the government or the assistance of others, the less we are able to control the outcomes of our own lives. When we petition for relief, rather than provide for each other, we become self-centered and not self-reliant. If we are not free to make a difference, charity becomes impossible.
If we want to avoid indifference we need to cultivate a culture of love. To love someone can mean a variety of things. However, there is a definition that I heard recently which suits. Love, simply put, is ‘to will someone the best’. When looking at how safety nets and charity are done, prudence should be used to determine the best way of helping others. We should avoid throwing more money at our problems and further delaying solutions. A moral decision is one that involves thinking with your mind as well as feeling with your heart.
A simple point about love is that you cannot separate it from a voluntary choice. Legal institutions such as the government, non-profits, and welfare programs are not able to love others. It is people who are capable of love. It is people who are made in God’s likeness that can show compassion.
Should we continue to deprive ourselves of the opportunity to voluntarily engage in charity, we will inevitably fall into a culture of indifference. Free society and prudent charity provide the framework for love and prosperity.