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The Problem of Charity

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The thing about charity that we rarely consider is what it steals from those it gives. It seems we've all subscribed to some dogma, ordering that anyone with a few bucks, some organizational skill, or likes Angelina Jolie, can and should help the less fortunate.

I wonder what would happen if the charity receivers were privately assembled to give their honest opinions on their sponsors. I'm reminded of a certain acquaintance, who came to my rescue once regarding a matter. There can be no faults recounted on the fervor and passion in which my acquaintance tried to help me resolve the matter. Only after the fact though, did I begin to realize how I was to repay this debt. My personal gratitude almost an unnecessary annoyance, the acquaintance began to use every public opportunity of my sighting to recall aloud the instance in which they came to my rescue. Sort of like a senile person telling the same joke over and over again. Except my personal moment of desperation took the place of that slow and patience defying joke. To the helper, much like the senile person, you cannot say "Hey, you're repeating yourself again". Instead, it is more appropriate to observe the secret code of being a charitable cause: to put on a polite smile, and to nod your way into regret.

So for this reason, I feel there should be a qualifying factor as to who should be allowed to set up a charity. If you have to get a driver's license to operate a motor vehicle, I don't see why we shouldn't require one to operate people's lives. I'm aware that there can be no true way to govern these matters, but at least we could start with some questions.

For example: Dear helper, what drives you to do what you do?

When thinking about what to write for IMPACT, considered a musician who has some cause-inspired music, it produced some very stirring questions. The answers to which troubled me enough to write this piece explaining the problem of charity. I feel it is wrong that the illumination of goodwill, the attention drawn from the holy halo of charity, be placed only on the helper's head. We're almost always single-track-minded about the exchange. Yes, I called charity an exchange. And isn't it? There is rarely a moment of true selflessness during the performance of charity. We can't help it. It's how we're built. We always need some kind of a return on our investments. At its worst, charity springs from our ego's need to be seen as good, or to attain material profit from the misery of others. At its best, it is done to feel good about oneself, or to leave a good name behind.

Religion offers the best example of charity's identity crisis. Here, you're meant to be charitable to please God. And if you do, He might throw a few favors your way. Turns out everyone wants something. But what do the charitable ones want? Aside from good drinking water, digestible nutrition, some human rights, sanitation, aside from school even? They want to keep the one thing that almost intrinsically vanishes in the trade off: their dignity.

Ever heard the Bono joke? He's on stage performing a concert in Ireland and asks the crowd to be completely silent. Then proceeds to snap, and snap, and snap with just a second of a gab between the snapping. And then says, "every time I snap my fingers, an African child dies." And after a short heartfelt moment of silence, a voice from the crowd goes "Well stop bloody doing it then, ya cruel bastard!" As amusing as I find this scenario to be, I can spot some truth in it. A lot of us awareness-raising-wannabe-activists want to keep snapping, even if all it took to stop malaria-related deaths was to quit the damn snapping. We do it because we need evil to exist in order to measure our goodness.

But, in our crooked humanity and its glory, I do think that certain selfishness is good selfishness. In fact, we can say it is necessary to be selfish in order to give. We just have to be honest about our reasons. It is okay to say, 'I want to help people because it's good for me.' It's okay to say, 'I do it not because I am so precious and kind, but because it is in my best interest to do so.' Everything you do for charity is ultimately for you. I am no exception. Some people have water, or literacy, or child rights. My little passion project has always been Somalia.

My obsessive desire to help better this place is also rooted in some form of selfishness. I want to fix it so that I can go back there for sentimental reasons. I want to preserve its culture of poetry because I think some of the greatest poetry in the planet is produced there. I want children in Somalia to have their right to life, to childhood, to education, to peaceful existence, because I know what it's like to lose some of those things. Because I now cannot enjoy those things fully, knowing others are without them. I do everything I do, ultimately for me, and for the unexplainable urge called Love. And yes, even love springs from the self, and therefore cannot be selfless. And yes, I do hope God could throw a few favors my way, too! So when you want to start a cause, or be involved in one, ask why. And if you find that the answers are all rooted in your own beautiful selfishness, don't be alarmed. You're a human being.