Last month I bought myself an espresso machine, when for the same price I could have instead cured someone’s leprosy.
I was in a position to do either, and the decision wasn’t that hard. Somebody will continue to live with a horrendous disease — however — now I can make my own lattes.
Why did I do that? Why don’t I feel that bad about it? What will stop me from continuing to choose small luxuries for myself when I could be making enormous changes to the quality of life of other people?
Honestly, I have always been a little uncomfortable about giving to charity. I wondered if I was alone here, so I did a bit of poking around on the web and found that a lot of people have a similar ambivalence about it. The most common reasons people cited for not giving much to charity (or feeling weird about what they do give) were:
“Who do I help” syndrome — Why cure one person of leprosy, when I could provide polio vaccines for dozens? Should I help the homeless in my own city before I help the homeless in Pakistan? Who is suffering more? Does it matter? Should I give to the most popular causes (think Katrina, 9/11, Haiti) or avoid them in favor of neglected ones?
“Where do I draw the line” syndrome — Even if I had chosen someone’s leprosy treatment over my private cappuccino party, how could I justify only curing one person, when I make enough in a year to cure over a hundred? I could make some lifestyle changes, and maybe swing ten with some planning and sacrifice. But even then I’m still neglecting people whom I could save if I was willing to eat bulk spaghetti twice a day. There are some established guidelines for giving to charity. The traditional tithe is 10% — though that’s to be given to your church, and historically it hasn’t always been a voluntary contribution. The 10% mark is a real stretch for most people; the typical American household contributes 2.1% of its annual income to charitable causes. But each person’s “line” is ultimately arbitrary.
“Into the void” syndrome – Most of the time, when we donate to charity, we have no way of seeing how our contribution helps. It just disappears into the coffers of a charitable organization, and there’s something unsatisfying about that. I know I shouldn’t need the personal gratification of actually seeing somebody’s life change because of me — that’s not really the “proper” spirit of giving — but maybe I’m kind of vain and that’s what I want.
Distrust of charitable organizations — Some are frauds. Some eat of a lot of donations in administration costs. Some even pay people to collect donations. Some are partial to religious institutions we may not be on board with. (Note: If distrust is your biggest reservation about giving, there is a helpful tool here to learn more about different charities.)
Uncertainty about the helpfulness of handouts — Anyone who’s ever given change to a panhandler has probably wondered whether the donation really was helpful. It’s easy to imagine that in many (most?) cases, a handout just pushes desperation another day forward in time, without solving the problem. There is a currently a movement to cease aid to Africa, under the argument that it perpetuates dependence on handouts and undermines the development of struggling economies. Should you “give a man a fish” when what he really needs is to learn to fish?
Proximity probably has more to do with it than anything. If the leper I could have helped were in my living room rather than a remote village in Sri Lanka, the choice would have been easy. As I said in a recent article, we can’t really know suffering from a distance. We can imagine it, even suffer over the idea of it, but it remains abstract unless it is in our presence. For what it’s worth, my latte is not abstract.
This isn’t necessarily a reason not to give to charity. It’s hard to deny that an hour’s pay for me is enough to drastically improve someone’s quality of life, somewhere, in the form of eyeglasses, medication, food, clothing, or hope.
Yet I continue to feel an ambivalence about charity. For whatever reason or combination of reasons, I am seldom compelled to donate money. Often I feel like I’m only doing it out of guilt or some sort of weird vanity. To use a contemporary term… I’m just not feeling it.
A Wicked Dollar
I always had trouble articulating this ambivalence, but a passage from Emerson took on new meaning when I reread it last week:
There is a class of persons to whom by all spiritual affinity I am bought and sold; for them I will go to prison, if need be; but your miscellaneous popular charities; the education at college of fools; the building of meeting-houses to the vain end to which many now stand; alms to sots; and the thousandfold Relief Societies; — though I confess with shame I sometimes succumb and give the dollar, it is a wicked dollar which by and by I shall have the manhood to withhold.
This hit home. The meaning of these remarks is clearer in their full context (available here) but they do hint at the alienation some of us feel toward traditional forms of charity. For a long time, whenever I felt an inclination to give to charity, it seemed to come from some sort of negative or contrived emotion — guilt, sympathy, pity, self-importance, or at best, a vague sense of “should.”
On the other hand, there are times when my heart genuinely overflows for people who need help. In those moments, what I should do is clear and there are no reservations. These instances are usually when we are in each others’ physical presence, but not always. With charity there is normally a distance, either physical or emotional, that seems to inhibit love. Putting a cheque in an envelope is not usually something that feels loving to me.
Whenever I’ve mailed a cheque in the past, I’ve felt some of the same feelings I get while voting — I feel a little bit of self-congratulation, smugness even. Faint reservations arise in my mind about the usefulness of it, the real reasons behind it — my ulterior motives of personal gratification, conformity, idealism and self-importance, and those of the people asking me to do it.
By sending money I knew intellectually that I was helping people, but it felt distant and inadequate. If my chosen cause was truly worth my love, would I not be be out there donating my time and my presence, rather than only a negligible proportion of my money? I know that my donation facilitates the co-ordination of volunteers and other hands-on contributors. Am I paying others to give their love in the absence of mine?
The arbitrariness of donating to Siloam Mission and not Winnipeg Harvest always got to me too. I felt like I was putting a small, temporary dent in a random corner of some huge, complex problem, wondering if it would have a lasting effect on anyone.
Help, With a Whole Heart
The “class of persons” Emerson refers to is not a socioeconomic class. It is whatever collection of fellow individuals — both friends and strangers — whom, for him, generate no feelings of ambivalence or callousness or pity or alienation. They are people he is able to help with his whole heart, without having to ration his help.
He doesn’t specify who they are or why they have that effect on him, but makes the point that the rest of us — the scrutinous eye of society — do not need to know his motivations, so long as he is honest with himself about who really does capture his heart, because genuine charity doesn’t care about appearances or quotas.
I am convinced that for each of us there are people and causes that will compel us to help with an undivided heart, without regard for appearances, without misgivings about effectiveness or appropriateness, without thoughts about percentages or obligations. But we don’t always know who they are, and so we take our cues from convention, tradition, and television, and it doesn’t feel quite right.
“I know that for myself it makes no difference whether I do or forbear those actions which are reckoned excellent. I cannot consent to pay for a privilege where I have intrinsic right.”
Almost anyone would agree it is better to give than not give, even if they can’t reconcile all of their reservations about it, or know quite how they are helping. But I think it’s important to look at these feelings rather than continue to roll with the status quo, and to look for a place or a means to contribute where we don’t have these misgivings.
In the mean time, how do you feel about charity? Who do you give to? Why them and not someone else? Do you feel any reservations about it?
Photo by Wit