I had a difficult conversation with my neighbour this morning. Each day I, and my neighbours, take our constitutionals with our dogs around the lanes of our valley. It is rare not to meet someone and usually the walk ends with a handful of folk and a reasonably sized pack of dogs doing the circuit. My immediate neighbour, and his two terriers, are my most frequent companion and my reliable source of local news. He has been very ill over the last few years and had become significantly disabled. However, fortunately he discovered the idea of a mobility scooter and his life has been transformed.
On his own he is able to walk, perhaps, 20 yards on a flat surface and over the past years he had to give up many of the activities he enjoyed. Now, with his scooter he walks the dogs daily again, visits friends, post letters, and the many other activities which allow him to have an independent life. But I have to confess that, at one level, it was his mobility scooter which made the conversation difficult this morning.
On his scooter there is a little dial. This dial can be turned from pointing at an icon of a tortoise through to a picture of a running hare. I think this dial is probably stuck solid through lack of use as he never switches it from the dashing hare. I believe he hates the idea that he might hold people up or slow down their walk. Unfortunately, this means our walks take the form of me jogging and running trying to keep up while he zips along with ease. To a passer-by I am sure it looks as if he is being chased by an elderly, wheezing asthmatic, but safely evading their clutches.
I have asked him the speed that the ‘hare’ setting represents as a hint that perhaps this was a little too fast (As prior hints by wheezing, stumbling and falling behind were obviously too subtle). It seems at this setting we can manage a steady pace between 5 and 6 miles per hour. This is the pace that marks the change from jogging to running and it seems that this is good estimate of our progress. So our conversation was difficult: my replies obscured by wheezy breathing; his replies lost on the wind as he flew on.
However, this was not the main reason the conversation was difficult. The real difficulty came with the content of his news. He, and his wife, have been keen Rotarians all their adult life and done an enormous amount of charitable works. He sadly informed me that his, and possibly the other, branch of Rotary in our area might have to close down. We are unusual in our small town that we have two branches of this charity. It relates back to the great schism a decade or two ago. Arguments about the membership of women, and difficulties relating to important players personalities, split the Rotary into two groups.
Both groups were successful for a while but in the last years their membership has risen in age and fallen in numbers. Insufficient people attend to justify two groups continuing and if they merge back it is possible that there may not be enough interested people to even keep one branch functioning. As we talked about this it became clear that this type of charitable work is often maintained by older people. Younger people don’t seem to have the interest or enthusiasm to take part in this type of charitable activity. As members die there are not new recruits waiting in the wings to take their place.
This would not be a terrible situation were it simply reflecting a change in practice and new styles of charitable works were being brought forward by a younger population. This is not happening, we seem to be losing the interest in charity. Although charitable donations have increased, the number of people giving is less and fewer people report active involvement in any form of charity. I fear that some of this may be an unintended adverse effect from the larger welfare state we now enjoy. We pay our taxes and expect the state in return to look after us in our periods of misfortune. Ideas of self reliance and prudence for the future are less fashionable now.
Charity is a virtue, possibly the greatest virtue. But often now charity is seen a a poor or bad thing, something to be avoided. Public opinion often complains if charities provide a service rather than the state. The poor and the misfortunate will always be with us and we will always need to be able to do what we can to help our fellow men and women when they fall on hard times. The state will never cover every eventuality and nor should it.
If we don’t get the opportunity to undertake charitable actions we miss out on one of the most important aspects of being human. To knowingly and deliberately help, or forgo something, to help our fellow is what marks us as human. It is also, in most psychological research, the most potent source of our happiness. Material things can only give brief and transitory pleasure, while helping others does bring lasting happiness. It is in our nature. This may help explain the paradox that while the material wealth of the population has risen year on year unfortunately our happiness has not. Indeed, as we have become materially wealthier more of use are falling prey to depression and sadness.
It was difficult to hear about the possible loss of these local social groups. It sounded like a further sign that we are continuing on a path which distances us from our neighbours and making us less involved particularly when times are hard. No amount of money, no amount of taxation, can have the same effect of a helping hand from a friendly neighbour and we should be wary of seeing comfort as a substitute for happiness.