Every morning on my way to the local liquor store, I pass by a homeless man on Calvert Avenue. He props himself up against a utility pole and his head slumps over his little cardboard sign, and it’s hard to tell if the leathery skin under his vacant face is holding the sign in place or if the sign is supporting his head.
“Homeless,” it says in oddly precise block letters.
“Need money for food and shelter.”
I’ve seen this man every day for the last five years, and I’ve never given him a dime. Mostly for the usual reasons; he won’t spend the money on food, it’ll immediately go to drugs, etc. But, I also abstain from helping the homeless because such petty and insignificant instances of charity are more often than not, entirely selfish endeavors. If I give this man twenty five, maybe fifty cents, it’s almost impossible that I would notice a difference in my own finances. There’s really no way that the small amount of change in my pocket will have any kind of impact on my ability to live my life; yet, I’m still rewarded with a feeling of altruistic moral superiority. This is unfair, considering that objectively, I’m a bad person.
When I was a little girl, I would see those infomercials on television advertising young African children that you could purchase for the price of a cup of coffee a day, and I always envisioned myself being one of those white ladies that owned a stable of impoverished wretches.
“These are my African children,” I would say, parading around their photos around my office like Pokemon cards; smugly announcing my status as a paragon of grace and good will. I was too young to realize that the only reason I wanted to buy a bunch of African kids was so that I could feel better about myself and elevate myself above other people, and there are much better ways to do that.
I think most people will find that their desire to give mostly stems from a lack of self-esteem. Something in their life is missing, and like a dam that has sprung a leak, the feeling of quickly fleeting worthiness is further compounded by our desire to shed all of our possessions and give to those that do not have – not out of empathy, but as a method of escape. We don’t give to help others, we give to help ourselves. And really, you should hold on to what you have, and figure out what it is that you need in your life to make it better, instead of looking for a quick fix through from the impermanent feeling of redemption that’s offered by the illusion of charity.
But, despite knowing this, I still donate. I still give, just like everyone else, because I am imperfect. Because it’s easier to pay an extra dollar at the grocery store to combat childhood leukemia than it is to just sign up for a gym membership and make a real change in my life that would actually make me feel better. It’s no coincidence that the option to donate to charity sits side by side with the candy and the gossip magazines. It preys on our impulse to find a quick cheap fix to our momentary sense of loss as we spend too much money on food that’s just going to make us fatter, less desirable, and one step closer to the miserable people that we’re supposedly helping.
Well, this month, I learned an invaluable lesson. I have gained several pounds and I was feeling down on myself, and I decided foolishly to give a little bit so that I could give myself a quick esteem boost and offset the negative karma I had brought on by spreading lies about my coworkers earlier in the week. I read a lot about the current conflict in the Middle East, the children being killed, and I thought, “Perfect. This is exactly the kind of thing I can throw money at and subsequently shove in peoples faces.” I did some research, found an organization, and maid a PayPal donation of 100 bucks.
Simple, easy, done. Except, as usual, the feelings fade, time passes, and suddenly, no one cares that you donated 100 dollars to a cause you believe. Suddenly, it’s a week later, and people are dying someplace else, and you’re out 100 dollars and you can’t afford drinks on Friday night because you had to go and blow your disposable income for the month on children who will never be able to thank you. I feel that same sense of loss all over again, and I wish I had my 100 dollars back, because not only could I have spent it on myself, but apparently Hamas is not a charity and now I have to spend the rest of the week talking to investigators.
So, lesson learned. Never donate; it’s not worth it.