Two weeks ago I was in a pub watching a cricket game with some friends when a woman shuffled up to me, looking a little distressed and out of sorts, asking for 50 P. Without really thinking about it I reached into my pocket, found a one Pound coin and handed it to her. She quickly thanked me and scurried off. One of my friends turned to me and asked, “Why did you bother giving her anything?”. I simply replied, “I don’t know man. Its just a Pound. Plus it makes me feel good thinking, who knows, maybe I really made her day by just helping her out.”
This instance popped into my head today and it got me thinking. What is the true nature of charity in our current society? Is it truly giving in the true spirit of the word, or is it given with another purpose. Even in this, seemingly selfless instance, I justified by act of charity by stating that I felt a personal gain or worth form being kind to a random stranger. Does this mean that charity is sometimes just a means of self-indulgence? A way to justify our own personal worth?
The word charity itself can sometimes carry negative connotations. If you have worked in an NGO, at least one that still possesses a sense of idealism, you may have noticed that the word charity is sometimes frowned upon. It implies a sense of superiority in the giver. Well if it is just a case of terminology, then for the purposes of this short discourse let us use the word ‘Altruism’ in place of charity. My question however stands. Is altruistic behavior in this day and age real altruism in the sense of the definition? The Oxford English dictionary by the way defines altruism as a noun meaning “disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others“. How many of us can really say that our charitable/voluntary/community activities (and I purposely use these words interchangeably, because most often do) are truly altruistic?
Let me be the first to make confession then. I worked for a number of years with a youth-run NGO in India which, amongst other things, worked for the promotion of independent arts and tried to provide a platform for young amateur musicians trying to make it the “arts scene”. What drew me to work however wasn’t a deep sense of drive to establish opportunities for my fellow young people though as much as it was my own love for music and wanted to something creative and have some fun. Admittedly my feelings on many issues changed through the years of working with many talented and passionate individuals, and I am ever thankful to them, but that does not change the fact that my motives were not wholly “altruistic”.
This leads me then to my next question. Does it matter? Almost surely many of my former colleagues would say, yes it does. They would emphasize the importance that someone working towards real change in the community needs to believe in that change and work on the same level as others in the community, otherwise your work becomes a simple act of “charity” (I use inverted commas here to emphasize the negative connotation that many may feel the word to have). On the other hand, if I managed to raise X amounts of funds to keep projects running, through sweet-talking and arm-twisting my personal friends and well-wishers, without really caring deep in my heart about the work that project does, does that change anything? Would it matter that I did it just to be able to put it on my CV so it would seem more impressive?
I was always raised to look out for others and give back twice as much as I got. These are values that have always driven my parents, and which they take to heart and to bat. But somewhere along the way I fear I grew more cynical than that. I have seen people who choose to dedicate their life to helping others, expecting little in return and feeling genuine pain in witnessing the suffering of others. But I have also seen people who wish only to seem to do good, lavishing in the praise and limelight that “social work” brings to them.
Perhaps I have grown hardened and jaded. Perhaps television and the media have desensitized me to the pleas of my fellow man. Perhaps it is simply a self-preservation technique, lest I let the troubles of the world swallow me whole.
I have posed many questions here today. Many I fear I shall not ever be able to answer. Should you possess some answers dear reader, do share.