George was fussing as he and Thomas walked down the steps of the Beulah Hall after church. “I wish you wouldn’t make me go to that Sunday school, George said, “half the kids sleep through it, and the other half act like they been fedex’ed overnight from God to make us see the right answers. And old Master Marcus, he’s just a gooner.”
“What did Master Marcus do that got you so bent out of shape?” Thomas asked.
“He kept talkin’ on and on ’bout charity,” George said. His grandfather noticed George slipped back to street talk when he got angry or upset. He never called his attention to it. Rather, at such times, he just tried to ease over into a more neutral and grammatically-correct manner of speech, to provide a model for George.
“What’s wrong with being charitable?” Thomas asked.
“Old Marcus make me feel like if I ever needed charity, I would be some kind of inferior nigger,” George said
“Well, he’s got a point,” Thomas said, “People usually give charity to someone they consider less well off than they are. And it’s just a short step from there to setting yourself above the person you’re giving to, and setting them below you. You remember your old Auntie Letitia, Every visit she would bring you socks, cause she knew we were on a thin budget at that time. And she’d give you the socks, ok, but then make a big fuss about how bad it was you didn’t have good ones, and how bad your grandma and me was for not buying you good socks. And she never really said it, but she always hinted that she was a fine old Christian woman for stepping in and making things right.”
George was a little startled his grand father had grasped the point he was trying to make. “Yeah,” George said with enthusiasm, “Yeah, that’s old man Marcus all right.”
“Well,” Thomas said, “he’s doing the best he can. He might need a little charity himself, but not the snooty kind.”
Clearly, Thomas was still exasperated about something. “I reads the Bible in those classes, I try to figure out what God’s sayin’, and it just seems to me God’s talkin’ about more than charity when you’re a Christian.”
“Think about the problem in terms of ‘good people,’ rather than Christians,” Thomas suggested. “Later on when you’re older, it will make more sense. Good people, which mostly includes Christians–well, they are concerned with more than charity, just like you’re suspecting. There are two more things…”
“One of them is love, ain’t it, Grandpa.” It wasn’t a question.
“You’re right, George. But there’s kind of a step in between, as I see it, on the way to being able to love others.”
“Charity is mostly about you,” Thomas said, “It’s about feeling approving of yourself cause you’re able to help people less well off than you. Most people like their charity to be known, because their ego is telling them they should be proud of this great deed. They want to feel that other people will look up to them for their charitable acts. So charity tends to make the giver feel better than the receiver. But now consider kindness.”
“To be kind,” Thomas continued, “you have to do more than see some superficial need a person has. You have to have empathy–that means you have to see them as a person, whether they’re family or not–and have some feeling for the loss or lack in the other person’s life.”
“Grandma was kind,” George said. Again, it wasn’t a question.
“Your grandma knew you like the back of her hand. She could always tell when you needed something important, and she would never rest until she got things fixed. Most of the time, your grandma would never even tell me what she did.”
“Why not?” George asked.
“I think she felt taking care of you was between her and God, and God already knew so there wasn’t any point talking about it. She wouldn’t exactly tell you what she’d done, either, but she’d always fuss over you a little.”
“If you think about it,” Thomas continued, “kindness makes a person on the receiving end feel a whole lot better than if they got charity, ’cause most of the time in charity, you’re making another person an object, sort of, and doing something to them. But when you’re kind, the other person feels you know some little personal thing about them. You care about them. You’re not putting them beneath you. All that makes a person feel good. But there’s a problem with acts of kindness”
“Is it bein’ kind to Muslims and Hindus?” George asked.
No,” Thomas said emphatically, “a person who’s really kind will be kind to those people too. The problem is, when you’re being kind to someone, you’re still caught up with the act, and not the other person. In your head, you say to yourself, ‘that person over there is in need; I should give him this.’ But it’s all too easy to slip up and think, “I’ll be kind to them if they’re nice to me, or if they aren’t rude or unappreciative, or if they’re not my enemy.”
“Who be kind to their enemies, Grandpa? Don’t make no sense.”
“It don’t if you don’t think it through,” Thomas said, “Kindness is usually what we do when we like people, or at least when they’re nice to us, cause we use kindness as a reward for being worthy of our good will. So kindness just sees other people as bundles of good deeds or bad deeds, and most people figure it’s a lot easier and makes more sense to be kind to the good people. Like, you’re rewarding a good person for being your kind of good, by being kind.”
“Ain’t nothing wrong with that, Grandpa.” George said.
“What if all the deeds and actions people did was just a layer around the real person? You see the person’s good deeds or bad deeds on that outer layer, and you judge a person accordingly, and then you are kind to the ones that deserve it?”
When George got really interested in a conversation, he simply watched his grandfather, and waited until he started in again.
“What if there was something behind that layer of good and bad deeds, son? What if the layer of deeds was all the world could see of you, but your real self was behind that layer, The deeds are kind of like a big wall, that keep you from seeing what’s behind it. But behind the wall there’s your real nature as a spiritual being. As a spiritual being, you’re exactly the same as the shooter on MLK Boulevard, or the drunk who beats his wife in a trailer park. It’s not that you’re similar, or you’re all connected: it’s that you’re all one Spirit.
“That’s a little spooky, Grandpa.”
“Well, son, you have to spend some time with it. The thing is, if you ever climb over that wall and understand that all of us are just the same thing– a river of spirit flowing through God–then lots of things look different. If we’re all one thing, the same thing, it makes no sense to put others down so that we can seem higher, and it’s not enough to reward people only for doing the things we approve of. When you get over the wall, you see there isn’t any ‘we’ and ‘them,’ there’s just us, just the one thing and we’re all it.”
To George’s surprise, Thomas pulled a black leather case from his pocket. Inside was a meerschaum pipe, nearly as black as the leather. He stuffed it with tobacco, and fired it up. Thomas seldom smoked these days, and he only fell back on his meerschaum when he felt in dire need of getting his thoughts straight.
“When you see we’re all just one thing, the same thing, then you have to know everybody has to be valued the same. That value is called by another name, it is called love. We have to love everybody the same, because we are all the same thing: we are the spirit that flows through God. If our earthly deeds are bad, there should be consequences. A wife beater should be taken out of the house and given counseling until he’s fixed. A gang banger needs to be caught and locked up, at the very least. But these people are being dealt with in accordance with their worldly deeds. Once you understand that each and every one of them is more than their deeds, you feel different about them. It’s harder to judge them as bad, or evil, or belonging to some other religion, or no religion at all. You may not be able to love them right away, but I know some people who are able to do that. So I think when you can climb over the wall and see we are not individual bodies covered with a layer of good or bad deeds, and you understand we are nothing but a river of spirit that flows through God, then you can go to Sunday school, and nothing old Marcus can say will ever upset you.”
George took on that inward look he got when he was trying hardest to process difficult information. Gradually his face softened.
“Can we stop by Ted Drewe’s and get a custard, Grandpa?”
“I ‘spect.” Thomas said.
Then George said, “what if that smokin’ hurt you two, three years down the road?”
Thomas said nothing, but he knocked the fire out of his pipe, replaced the aged meerschaum in its case, and put the case back in his pocket.