When I was a kid charity was for chumps.
Despite the fact that my family, and most of our neighbors, got all types of government and public charity, we saw how carelessly and unevenly it was spread to the deserving and not so deserving. After church, where everyone put a buck or two in the basket, charity was sporadic and sometimes exploited.
Every Labor Day weekend the neighborhood kids went door to door collecting money for the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. But MDA never saw a dime. The kids kept it saying they were Jerry's Kids and needed it more.
The neighbors I grew up with in Brockton, Mass. were giving but not charitable. We looked out for each other. We helped each other. Even if we didn't like each other.
Old lady Burgess across the street rarely spoke to my mother. She might have had good reason. My father sometimes slept off a hard night on our picnic table in full view of her window. But when my twin brother and I were born and my mother was overburdened with newborns, five other kids and our dad, she crossed the street and washed our clothes and hung them out to dry.
I don't remember her crossing the street again, or my mother reciprocating the kindness. But I knew my parents would have if the need or request had come.
Charity started at home. But no one called it charity. There was a visible web of caring in my neighborhood that made that word seem artificial and distant.
Most of the charity that happens these days still feels this way. It can be cause marketing or any other kind of giving. When giving is disconnected from caring and context, it's just charity, in the worst sense of the word.
Maybe that's how Steve Jobs -- whose public giving was questioned last week -- feels and has chosen instead to drive all his caring into building a first class company that showers its employees and customers with rewards and opportunity.
Jobs' giving is at home.
Marketer Seth Godin, commenting on an earlier version of this post on my blog, believes this provincialism is outdated and downright dangerous:
We don't live in a village any longer. The world arrives on our doorstep daily, and we can no longer say, "I didn't know." We know. And we have an obligation... I'd like to think we don't need more people arguing for selfishness, short-term tribalism and only helping those you can see from out your front window.
I say give where your caring calls you and define your own obligation. If, like Sarah Palin, you can see further from your front window than I can, the world will be a better place because of it. But maybe not your neighborhood.
Regardless of where you focus your caring, the tug of war between give and take goes on.
Take this past weekend when the first Labor Day in decades came and went without Jerry Lewis as the frontman of the Muscular Dystrophy Association's telethon. He gave a lot to people with muscular dystrophy. His caring brought an obscure disease to the public's attention and raised billions to fight it.
But Lewis feasted on the fame, especially when Telethon was the only act he had left. And it's hard not to conclude that his curtain calls have kept MDA from evolving and modernizing leaving its post-Lewis future in doubt.
Give and take. Good and bad. That's what real charity is all about.