Charity in a Critical Age

by Paul O'Brien

We are participants in one of the most critical cultures that has ever lived, and I don't mean critical as in "significant;" I'm referring to the modern trend of criticizing. We're all critics, it seems, and this nothing new or unnatural. Humanity has been critical for millennia... it's just that we've never had such accurate, pervasive tools to assess information with as we do now.

Through an increasingly complex and ubiquitous media, our eyes have never been wider. After the revelatory shocks of truths exposed -- the Watergates, conspiracies, sex scandals, and secrecies-- we've never been quite this sensitized to deception and fraud. We've become so familiar with scandalous truth, that we pretty much assume that Michael Jackson is a pedophile the moment the allegations arise. (And as this painful-truth awareness has fermented from shame to thrill, we seek our next hit from second- class confessions and exposes from the local tabloids and talk shows when the first-class, genuine articles can't be found.)

These truths have given us reason to be critical, even skeptical. We can't sit idly by while a new cult forms knowing what we know about Jim Jones, or Waco, Texas; we are more prepared to handle potential disaster and deception by looking out and doubting much earlier that we used to. We can't sweep a political candidate's personal life under the rug anymore (even though it ostensibly has nothing to do with their political skills). There's a culturally cultivated instinct to doubt and deconstruct.

I'm not going to criticize the criticizing. I'm an advocate for skepticism, really... just skepticism applied fairly. Now that so many closets have opened --or, I should say, we know about more closets than we did before-- I'm concerned about the possibility that we may have been wading so long in the skeletons that we've become too cemetery-minded. I'm concerned about the fairness and balance of our sharpened skepticism, especially in regards to our personal perceptions of truth... and that's what I would like to write about now.

You won't find me knocking skepticism in principle, and rarely in practice. I think it's wise to analyze, and pragmatic to deconstruct issues. We don't want to be deceived or confused, so we should keep our eyes open and minds alert. Sometimes the best precaution is breaking things down into clearer, more digestible parts. And if certain people and situations remain ambiguous after criticism, sometimes it's wisest to assume the worst... just in case.

Being skeptical isn't the problem, in my opinion; it's being skeptical and onlyskeptical that is. Yet isn't that what we face so often nowadays? We all know people like this: they're always looking out for the scam, expecting the trick, waiting for the dirt to show no matter who or what they're looking at. They take the sharpened blade of skepticism and proceed to shave every damn thing under the sun. If a person with selfish motives comes along, this person nods their head and says, "I knew it!" If a person has unknown motives, this skeptic assumes they're hiding something; and if --impossible as it sounds-- someone actually has good intentions, this skeptic doubts them even more (because they must really be hiding something big to seem so kind).

Although such characters have always existed, we now find their spirit embodied in whole periodicals and television programs. It's skepticism taken to a cynical pitch, and I think we would all agree that it's not appropriate. Why? Because it's truth-seeking so intoxicated by deconstructing that it fails to realize that some ideas and some people are actually standing on solid foundations. It's not looking for answers anymore; it's trying to question everything long enough (and creatively enough, in some cases) until all answers match their predetermined one. To put it simply, it's one-sided.

I fear this imbalance, for even if we are not so blatantly cynical, we're certainly leaning that way more and more. We're so used to finding falsehood and foul play that it's become almost blase; it's the new norm, the new default by which we perceive things. But perception is exactly what I'm talking about and exactly what needs balancing. Though some say that the world is getting worse and that people are losing integrity, let's keep our heads. Let's not forget that sex scandals and conspiracies have always existed, and were notoriously worse in certain centuries before the present. These crimes we're appalled at have always happened in one form or another, too.

It's just that some fundamental things have changed. Due to the population increasing, there just happen to be more people around doing this sort of stuff; with technology, these actions also have a greater effect (as in the case of killing with a gun as opposed to a bladed weapon). With that same technology, we're also in closer, broader contact with these crimes and horrors. We're still looking at the world, and it's always had its ugly aspects; it's just we're seeing it with microscopes now instead of the naked eye.

In my view, criticism and skepticism has a twin brother, an opposite of sorts that nonetheless operates in a parallel fashion: charity. It's the other side of the coin I've been talking about, and it's that quality that I believe will help balance our perception of things. It's not that we necessarily need to be less skeptical; we just need to be more charitable.

What do I mean by charity? Well, take any given issue or matter or person: criticism seeks to analyze that thing, deconstruct it, and understand it's parts. More subjectively, it also seeks out what might be wrong with that thing. Charity, on the other hand, seeks take parts and synthesize them, constructing ideas. More subjectively, it also seeks out what might be right with such a thing.

Combined, skepticism and charity work very well. Courts of law ask nothing less than that we wield both of these; that we consider evidence, but in so doing, that we take into consideration our doubts about what's incomplete or ambiguous and our convictions about what we find acceptable.

But think of it more personally if that makes it clearer. Instead of just imagining the worst about someone or dwelling upon what's wrong or lacking in them, shouldn't we balance that by trying to see the best about them and considering what qualities they possess? Also, how often do we take an ambiguous situation and when speculating upon it, automatically pursue the more cynical, skeptical possibility when a more hopeful, understanding one might exist? When a stranger treats us rudely, we so quickly assume that they're asinine... never minding the possibility that they may just be having a bad day, or may just be tired and irritable.

I find it strange that when something awful has "allegedly" happened, we just assume that it really has, yet when something really wonderful allegedly happens, we just assume there must be some mistake. Are we so sensitized and cautious of falsehood that we would guard ourselves against possible truths? Are we so afraid of being deceived that we won't lend our faith to anything or anyone, even though doing so leaves us empty and impoverished?

I'm not asking anyone not to doubt, and I'm not asking people to just have more faith. I think we can doubt and have some faith at the same; we can be simultaneously skeptical and charitable. Isn't that the idea behind the adage, "assume the worst but hope for the best"? The question is, is our culture really hoping for the best anymore?

Let me conclude this with one final thought. To be charitable and open-minded can often lead to being duped or taken advantage of. But to be skeptical and cautious can sometimes lead to guarding oneself from things that we would be better off opening up to. Either decision, then, is its own risk. For me, if it isn't clear whether I should be skeptical or charitable in a given situation, I would prefer to err towards hope, trust, and faith. I would hate to be a miser with my trust, someone stingy and unnecessarily frugal with my perceptions of other people. It seems terribly wrong to bury our trust deep within ourselves when this trust and open- mindedness are often what define the quality of our lives.

If trust and open-mindedness was money, I would certainly recommend spending it wisely; the adage that a "a fool and his money are soon parted" would ironically still apply. But at the same time... let's not be so quick to bury our gold.

What do you think? Let me know...