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October 29, 2009
In The Village
Charity toward all people
by Orson Scott Card

As I prepared to talk about section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants with our ward's priests quorum, my eye was drawn to a phrase that is often overlooked, since it doesn't come in the most commonly-recited list of instructions.

"Let thy bowels be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith" (D&C 121:45).

This always seemed vague to me before, but it dawned on me now that this isn't a matter of warm feelings, but rather of warm actions.

As a teacher of writing, I have often told my students that we never really know anyone -- that we merely assume we understand other people's motivations.

When we leap to conclusions about other people's motivations we show far more about ourselves than about them!

For instance: Someone in the car ahead of you gives money to one of those professional beggars on the street corner. I have heard (or made) all of the following assumptions at one time or another:

"Isn't that nice? The beggar provides people the service of feeling all good about themselves; they get their money's worth."

Or "Isn't this the classic case of doing your alms before men, so you can be seen as charitable?"

Or "Are they so dumb they don't realize these beggars are pros and not homeless at all?"

Or "That person is following King Benjamin and not judging whether the person deserves help or not -- if they ask, and you have it to give, then you give it."

In every case we have no information at all about the motives of the person handing the beggar money out of their car window. We condemn without knowledge, and judge without love.

What if "charity towards all men" took the simple form of not leaping to disparaging conclusions about other people's motives?

The priests I was preparing to teach are all young and inexperienced drivers, prone to testosterone-charged aggressive feelings that they are not yet skilled in controlling.

At that stage in my life, I was such an aggressive driver that I lost my license for a time -- which may well have saved my life. And in every case where I drove dangerously, I was making assumptions about the motives of other drivers.

"He deliberately cut me off!" "Oh, so you want to race, eh?" "Hey, buddy, who appointed you the speed-limit monitor?" "Get off my tail, I'm going as fast as it's safe to go, you jerk!"

How many times as an ignorant young driver did I get angry at someone who flashed their brights at me -- only to realize, with more experience, that what really happened was they crested a hill, which made their low beams shine directly into my eyes?

I suggested to my priests that an excellent place to practice "charity towards all men" was on the road.

Instead of assuming that someone is being aggressive toward you, why not assume that they aren't aware of you at all?

If someone is a bad driver -- drunk or oblivious -- why be angry about it, when you could just as easily treat them gently, give them plenty of room, and help everybody get home alive?

And when someone "drives like a maniac," pushing up behind you, why not make up a kinder story about his motives? Maybe he's hurrying home because his wife called him and she's in labor. Maybe he's desperate to get to a restroom. Maybe he was just fired and he's angry and that's why he's driving so dangerously.

Any one of these stories will make you get out of his way and not try to block or punish him in any way.

Of course you have no idea if your little story has truth in it or not. But neither could you know if negative, angry assumptions about his motives are true, either. And charitable assumptions keep your heart at peace -- and your driving safer.

If this works in our dealings with total strangers, how much better it works at home, where we often make some of our worst assumptions.

"He does that just to make me mad." "You don't want me to have any friends!" "Sometimes I think you just spend money to be spending it!" "Did everybody in this house have a meeting where you assigned each other ways to ruin my day?"

What do you do, I asked the priests, when confronted by a family member's anger? Do you respond with anger? Sullenness? Stubborn defiance? Quiet disobedience? Storming around to show your anger even when you comply?

What if you were full of charity toward your angry mother? You know she loves you, and if she's showing anger it's because she feels justified. What if you answer with a smile and then set out to do jobs that need doing, so her burden is eased and her emotions calmed?

What if you were full of charity toward your father and said, "I know you're making this rule because you're afraid for me. I'm going to try to show you that I make good decisions so that you'll realize I can be trusted. But meanwhile, you're the dad, and you're doing your job. I just ask you to watch me and that see I'm trying to do mine, too." Suddenly the quarrel is over, and raising you is a venture you're collaborating on.

Your younger sibling is being deliberately annoying; why not take half an hour and help or play with him or her, showing your love and respect instead of your anger and resentment? Your older sibling puts you down; why not answer by doing one of his or her chores, showing that you care about them and want them to be happy?

Of course, every single thing I've described is completely unnatural. Our bodies are charged with hormones that leap to rage. But expressing rage doesn't ease it -- it makes it worse. Anger breeds anger.

Charity breaks that vicious cycle by stepping outside the natural response and turning conflict into kindness. It makes love the foundation of all our relationships -- with those we know best, and those we don't know at all.

In the long run, we sometimes find that certain people really do have vile motives. But it profits us nothing to leap to that conclusion, and blesses both us and them if we charitably assume they have decent, understandable motives and treat them accordingly.

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