Charity Unbidden

September 28, 2011 | 23 comments
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Saturday night, several talks of the General Relief Society Broadcast addressed charity. I was left with the general impression that we should want to cultivate feelings of charity towards others, and that as we desire to have charity, we will gain it.

I carry a sketch book and pencils with me. An adult only church meeting like the Relief Society broadcast  is the perfect place for me to sit quietly and sketch portraits of the people around me. I like to study faces and postures, to see the effects of life written on the body. I like to look beyond the damage and wrinkles to the child who was, unblemished and innocent, full of hope and potential. To see other people in this way is to mourn the troubles that have shaped them and recognize the strength of character that has allowed them to triumph. It is to see others charitably.

I agree that we should desire to feel charitable, that we should cultivate that way of seeing others contrary to our selfish natures. But I also believe that charity may come on us unasked for, as a grace.

It happens in a breathtaking moment, when you suddenly see a glimpse of another person as God sees them, flawed, yes, but also vulnerable and beautiful.

I distinctly remember one kid in my Hebrew class at BYU. He was one of the most annoying people I have ever met in my life. He was very smart, but socially inept. He consistently made loud, obnoxious comments and drew attention to himself with jokes that fell flat. As a result, he was universally disliked. We would pointedly not respond, snicker behind his back, make snide comments, and mock him outside of class. And we felt justified because he really was that annoying. I was no better or worse than my classmates.

But one day, this kid was talking about his upcoming birthday and the party he was planning for it. And I suddenly realized that nobody liked this kid and nobody was going to his party. I saw him in that instant as a little child who desperately wanted to be liked, to be respected, to have friends. Everything he did to draw attention to himself was a plea for someone, anyone to see him, to know him. And it broke my heart to realized that he was alone and I had mocked him for it. I saw him as a child that God loved, but I didn’t. It broke my heart open, and I was humbled, shamed to my core.

I was changed that day. This kid wasn’t suddenly different, but the way I saw him was. I started talking to him and listening to him when he spoke. And once someone finally acknowledged him, he toned down the desperate attention seeking behavior and was less annoying to everyone in our little class. Because I broke our wall of derision to talk to him, the attitude of the class changed.

In the broadcast, Sister Silvia Allred shared a quote from our founding prophet, Joseph Smith:

Speaking to the sisters, the Prophet Joseph said, “Don’t be limited in your views with regard to your neighbor’s virtues. You must enlarge your souls toward others if you [would] do like Jesus. As you increase in innocence and virtue, as you increase in goodness, let your hearts expand—let them be enlarged towards others—you must be longsuffering and bear with the faults and errors of mankind. How precious are the souls of men!”

The kid still had faults, no doubt. But they no longer grated on me. I saw his faults and loved him for them. That was the beginning of charity, and I have no doubt that is a grace that came unbidden.

23 Responses to Charity Unbidden

  1. Aaron R. on September 28, 2011 at 7:38 am

    “I carry a sketch book and pencils with me. An adult only church meeting like the Relief Society broadcast is the perfect place for me to sit quietly and sketch portraits of the people around me. I like to study faces and postures, to see the effects of life written on the body. I like to look beyond the damage and wrinkles to the child who was, unblemished and innocent, full of hope and potential. To see other people in this way is to mourn the troubles that have shaped them and recognize the strength of character that has allowed them to triumph. It is to see others charitably.”

    Did someone watch Saturday’s Warrior as a child? :)

  2. Rachel on September 28, 2011 at 7:41 am

    I have never seen Saturday’s Warrior.

  3. Stephanie on September 28, 2011 at 7:48 am

    Fantastic post!

  4. Tom O. on September 28, 2011 at 7:54 am

    This really touched me, because at some point in my life I too was the annoying kid in the class, desperate for acknowledgement and friendship, and at other points I was the one mocking — and maybe I was both at the same time. Anyway, over the years I’ve prayed to feel charity for others, and it works! Just as you’ve described it…I’ve had the same experiences. Charity is such a beautiful thing to feel. Thanks for posting this.

  5. Ellis on September 28, 2011 at 7:56 am

    I enjoyed discovering and reading this post. It makes me both delighted and embarrassed. It delights me because the words ring true and it embarrasses me because of my lack of humility and charity toward those people in my circle who are different than the norm. I find it difficult to be charitable towards those who are too much of what I would like to become as well.

  6. Kent Larsen on September 28, 2011 at 8:08 am

    Great post, Rachel.

    It seems to me that seeing others in this way has a certain risk: that we then will fall short and fail to treat them differently, even though we now understand them. We risk knowing that the annoying quirks of those we now understand will still annoy us and keep us from acting charitably.

  7. Rachel on September 28, 2011 at 8:22 am

    Kent-It is a risk. That is why I can only hope to continue to cultivate that spark of charity I’ve been given, remember the times I’ve failed, and strive to do better. Maybe this is a case of sinning against the greater light that will result in greater condemnation. But if we want to be Christ-like, we have to try and pray that His charity that will extend to us as well.

  8. Paul on September 28, 2011 at 8:48 am

    Rachel, what a lovely post. I can remember a time in my life when I was more like your classmate than I would have liked to admit. Looking back, I realize there were others who were far more tolerant than I was who were also tolerant of me, and waited patiently for me to grow into myself a bit more, showing me charity along the way. Your story reminded me of those folks. Thanks for that.

  9. Jax on September 28, 2011 at 8:54 am

    Thanks

  10. KLC on September 28, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Rachel, thanks for writing this. I’ve also experienced this, and like you said, I wasn’t looking for it, I wasn’t praying for it, but suddenly I saw a small glimpse of someone in a completely different way and I saw my actions differently as well. I learned something else from an experience that was like yours, I learned to be aware of the mob mentality that can exist in all of us when we are many ganging up on the one.

  11. jsg on September 28, 2011 at 10:04 am

    Thanks for sharing Rachel. I think this post resonates with a lot of us who have had these brief flashes of unexpected compassion. These moments are probably meant to condition us to a new, more deliberate way of doing things. David Whetten of BYU shared some memorable sentiments to new faculty (back when I was considered new) about the students we work with every day: his challenge was for us as faculty to see students as whole people with lives that go far beyond the course we happen to teaching. I left that seminar with a firm recognition that in order for teachers to light a fire in their students, they have to be prepared to work with them in the context of all of life’s complications–poverty, sickness, depression, and a million other distractions. As I practice this approach to teaching, I find myself thinking about specific students at odd times of the day and sending off little prayers for them. My ultimate goal is to live a life where charity doesn’t sneak up on me, but is just a constant disposition. Deliberate charity, bidden charity, prayed-for charity. Even then, it will still be a precious gift.

  12. psychochemiker on September 28, 2011 at 10:15 am

    This is a beautiful post.

  13. Sarah Familia on September 28, 2011 at 10:32 am

    I enjoyed this post, Rachel. When I was a teenager, I served as ward organist, and so I sat up on the stand every week, hidden behind the organ. From my observational post, it was my game to pick people out of the congregation and picture what they would be like as glorified, celestial beings. I especially liked to do it with the people who looked very careworn or rough around the edges. (I think my imagination had been caught by the C.S. Lewis quote: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.) I haven’t played this game in years. Maybe I should take it up again.

  14. Steve Evans on September 28, 2011 at 1:54 pm

    Yes, but did you go to his birthday party?

  15. Ardis E. Parshall on September 28, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Thanks, Rachel. The Bloggernacle needs more posts like this. *I* need more posts like this.

  16. Rachel on September 28, 2011 at 2:25 pm

    No, I wasn’t able to go. I never saw him outside of class. I wonder how this story would be different if I had gone, if I had tried to cultivate a friendship instead of only feeling compassion and greater tolerance. There is a good chance that I wouldn’t be able to present it as the nice, neat little story I’ve written here.

  17. Kaimi on September 28, 2011 at 3:08 pm

    That makes sense. It’s hard to extend friendship. In the real world, we’ll probably never see many of our classmates again. And I kind of expected that.

    But I was also hoping, at least a little, that the post would end with the classic line from Jane Eyre: Reader, I married him. :)

  18. Ray on September 28, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    But I also believe that charity may come on us unasked for, as a grace. It happens in a breathtaking moment, when you suddenly see a glimpse of another person as God sees them, flawed, yes, but also vulnerable and beautiful.”

    I have experienced that – and it really is an amazing, soul-expanding thing.

    Thanks, Rachel. This is a beautiful post – and something I need right now.

  19. Rachel on September 28, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Kaimi-I’m sorry to disappoint you. At the time I was already married, and my husband was in the class with me. Because I was already married, and this kid was single, and because BYU is a very strange social sphere to navigate, both for the single and newly married, I felt I was limited in what kind of interactions would be appropriate.

  20. Alison Moore Smith on September 28, 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Rachel, this is utterly beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing your experience.

  21. Chadwick on September 29, 2011 at 4:44 am

    This story reminds me of my 12 year-old nephew James. He has Asperger Syndrome. Before he was diagnosed, no one in the family really enjoyed spending time with him, because he was difficult to get along with. After the diagnosis, things changed considerably. He now attends an autistic Jr High and is one of the sweetest boys I know. It’s amazing how our perceptions can be completely turned on their heads from time to time and rock our world like that. And usually, it’s for the better.

    Yes, the diagnosis changed him, because he is now medicated and yes, the diagnosis changed us because we learned how to talk to him during those difficult times. But it was much more than that. This story reminds me of that paradigm shift into seeing him not as an annoying pre-teen, but as a child of God struggling with a unique challenge.

  22. James Olsen on September 29, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Well, Kaimi, it’s true that she didn’t marry me. But that’s alright, the teacher had a similar experience to Rachel, and I ended up marrying her instead ;)

    Reminds me a great deal of the gospel preached by the Arbinger Institute. Wonderful message Rachel.

  23. Barb on October 5, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    Yes, I do believe a person sometimes just craves a little attention. Not patronizing attention or such but just to fit in a bit with a group.