by Kim Kelly

flower footpath

CHARITY BEGINS ANY WAY YOU WANT IT TO

Have you ever come home after a bad day and poured a glass of wine – and then another? Have you ever had a really stressful run at work, or in a relationship, or had a health issue ambush you, and to cheer yourself up gone on a bit of a binge, be it a spot of shopping or a pig-out on your favourite comfort food? I’ve done all these things at certain times.

It’s not such a leap then to imagine what it must be like for someone to live through a prolonged crisis and to let the comforting indulgences go that little bit too far, or maybe even spiral out of control altogether. Is it?

Before judging those who stumble into despair, and the destructive behaviours that sometimes go along with it, I ask myself: how would I cope if I lost my job and, say, my husband at the same time? I’d probably freak out and drink too much – before somebody who loves me picked me up and said, ‘Kim, it’s okay, I’m here, you’ll be all right.’

But what if I had no-one to tell me that? What if most of the people in my life were also going through a tough time? What if, then, out of my feelings of hopelessness other monsters of despair emerged? Past hurts of, say, abuse or neglect. Some unspeakable trauma. Or maybe, after trying so hard to drag myself up from poverty, this setback starts to make me believe I’m not deserving of success.

My shoulders hunch, I can’t afford to have my good suit dry-cleaned. I miss out on all the jobs I go for. The woman at the employment agency tells me I have a bad attitude; I take this as further evidence that I’m not worthy of a second chance.

I’d probably start to become depressed and drink more. I might eat more cheap and cheerful crap food than I should, too – and then I’d start putting on weight to feel even worse about my situation.

I don’t fit my good suit anymore and I can’t afford to buy another. I start to distance myself from the friends I have left; I’m so ashamed of what is happening to me.

At this point, I might also start to mentally break down. After one binge too many on the rot-gut red wine, I might become so confused about who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing, I might wander out into street in my nightie and end up in a psychiatric ward.

My life would then have been stamped with failure in every way.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to live a normal life now.

This line of empathy is a simple one. It’s pretty much that basic principle of ‘don’t judge others lest ye be judged yourself’ common to all major religions. I don’t think you need to be religious in order to understand it, though. I’m not religious, I’m not even particularly virtuous, but I can feel empathy. Just because.

The thought of others going hungry, or cold, or lonely, upsets me. And it worries me that our society seems generally to be drifting away from valuing these sorts of ordinary human urges: kindness, compassion, understanding. In our more shouty, judgy, me-me-me culture, it’s becoming frighteningly common to publicly make fun of the unfortunate, to blame them for lacking the nous to get themselves out of strife. We watch ‘poverty porn’ on TV, tweeting our disgust at the way other people live. We blame single mums for budget deficits. We tell the needy at our door: there’s no room at the inn, and you shouldn’t have tried to come here in the first place.

But we are all other people, fragile and vulnerable. Every single one of us. Precious. Easily broken. It’s overwhelming sometimes, thinking: but what can I do to help those who fall down? Sometimes guilt at my own good fortune is overwhelming, too. But I can’t do nothing when I think of others left wanting. Right now, as winter sets in, I’m buying an extra bag of food for a local charity each time I do the shopping, because their cupboard is bare. And it should never be. They need tinned food – urgently. My offering is too small, but so very necessary.

I imagine some child, some little boy like my own sons used to be, somewhere in my district sitting down to a bowl of hot pumpkin soup tonight, soup I gave to his mother, through another who respects her dignity enough not to ask why she’s broke again this week, and it makes me happy to know I did that one tiny thing, to tell her: hang in there, someone cares.