Deadman’s A-Z Guide to Living: Charity

I basically do everything ass-backwards when it comes to charity.

They say you should give generously. I don’t give nearly enough. I’m not religious, but there is a laudable Judeo-Christian tradition of tithing, which means giving up 10 percent of one’s income to charity (Well, the original intent of the tithe meant giving 10% of one’s income/production to God via the temple – and still means that for many Christians – but has now evolved to encompass charitable giving more broadly). I have no clue if the tithing is meant to be before or after taxes (I’m thinking post-tax), though I often fall well short of that 10 percent goal in either scenario. Heck, many years, I probably don’t tithe my tithing obligations (1 percent, for those not good at math).

They say you should give eagerly. With joy, even. I almost always give reluctantly, feeling a lot like Oda Mae Brown in Ghost when she is forced to give up that million-dollar check to the nuns on the street. I also get more than a little annoyed when people call my house to ask for donations. I try to be polite and respectful as I know these people are just doing their jobs (or even volunteering) and following their scripts, but I find the intrusion terribly annoying. It’s particularly galling the way they keep badgering you when you tell them ‘No, thanks,’ and they just keep moving their requested donation down in increments, to the point where you feel like the cheapest schmuck in the world when you tell them, ‘No I cannot give you $5. Now, please leave me alone.’

The truth is, though, these telemarketing calls are usually quite successful – I am a sucker who has trouble saying no, and usually wear down and give up something just so I can get off the phone. But this surrendering makes me even madder because I feel like I’ve been beaten at a game somehow, and I just know these yeses will only lead to more calls in the future. Which it does – barely a week goes by where I don’t get somebody calling me up asking for money. I now try to avoid answering any number which isn’t recognizable on caller ID, as these bastards always know to block or disguise their names, but once these guys have your number, they will NEVER stop calling until you pick up the phone.

They say you should give anonymously. This makes a ton of sense, as publicizing one’s charitable contributions is more than a bit gauche and tawdry. If the sole purpose of charity is to help others and do good in the world, then you should have little need of attaching your name to donations. But me, I always want to make sure people know when I have given and if at all possible (and impressive a figure), how much. When friends or family ask me to give to a cause, I have never once checked the ‘Donate Anonymously’ box that often accompanies the online forms. And when there is a donation number that will get my name in some sort of stupid brochure, I try and make sure to hit it.

Giving anonymously also prevents the recipient from feeling indebted or humiliated upon receiving aid. A noble idea, and yet one of my favorite ways of giving charity is giving dollars (or worse, pocket change) directly to panhandlers on the street. Why? Because it gives me an immediate sense of satisfaction, hearing their ‘God Bless Yous’ and seeing their genuine looks of appreciation. But do I stop and think about what little good those dollar bills or quarters are actually going to do and how low and beaten down these people must feel that they’ve been forced to beg for my meager assistance in the first place. Yeah, perhaps they are just happy to have the money to find their next meal (or their next score – I make no judgments about how a homeless person finds whatever small happiness he can get in his life), but surely they must also at times feel a tremendous loss of dignity at what they are being forced to do, and the fact that I am getting self-satisfaction out of the small gesture basically negates any of its inherent goodness.

They say you should give more than money. Money definitely helps, but donating one’s time and effort often provides a much more meaningful impact. I fail miserably here as well. One time about a decade ago, I sponsored an inner-city student to help him attend a well-run Catholic school. My brother provided the majority of the financial assistance while it was my main job to help guide him and his family through the process, and make sure the kid was adjusting and succeeding in the new environment. But I was a single guy living it up in Manhattan, and here too, I gave the minimum amount necessary. I made little effort to help him improve his faltering grades, or to give him advice on how to get into college, or to make any kind of lasting impact that could have affected his life beyond his graduating high school. It was yet another example of good intentions gone bad, and I have regrettably lost touch with the student and his family. I also have rarely volunteered my free time for charity since then.

Yet, despite my numerous shortcomings in charitable giving – my poor track record, my questionable motives, my begrudging attitude – I just don’t feel you can do charity wrong. You can do it in better or worse ways, and I resolve hereby to try and keep improving my technique with each passing year – to give bigger and smarter and eagerer.

On the other hand, I am not embarrassed to acknowledge that giving charity also makes me feel good.  The desire to give of oneself to help others is one of the things that separates and elevates us as a species. Whether it’s done because the Bible says doing it will get us into heaven or because natural selection has made empathy a defining human trait, charity is a key ingredient of a successful and well-lived life.

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