When I was a young, dreamy poli-sci student in Montreal, I joined many of my colleagues in pursuing charitable avenues of civic engagement and social entrepreneurship. Volunteerism and charity allowed necessary breaks from our academic exercises and transformed knowledge into philanthropic practice. With hindsight, these worthwhile endeavors also served as a sexy cover for the anti-Machiavellian wanna-be-do-gooder in many of us, or a symbolic reassurance that we are, we think, ‘good’ people, as academia can turn even the best of us down a spiral of self-absorption.
I ended up volunteering briefly for a well-known not-for-profit (which will remain nameless) that was dedicated to helping students study abroad, and needed volunteers to assist in a fundraising campaign. After making cold calls asking for funds and regurgitating the fantastical mission of the organization, I was rewarded with pizza and promises of greatness. I had arrived there over-enthusiastic and over-dressed and left feeling uninspired and naked. I questioned who I was really benefiting, and left my cold calling ‘Calling’ cold. On my last day I walked home and saw a homeless woman begging for food; I walked by her as I had learned to do in that city with its pockets of shameless poverty. Upon realizing she had asked for food specifically, I turned around and gave her the slice of pizza that I had saved, my volunteer reward. I admit, I felt a shiver of goodness until I reached home, absolutely famished, and tried to surmise what I had really accomplished with this slice realizing it was a sliver of a much larger ‘pie.’
So, I set off to fulfill my charitable appetite with an organization that would engage its community beyond fundraising and into greater social action, with a broader scope on many pieces of the social pie: poverty, hunger, social disparities and infractions on human rights. I ended up working with UNICEF and launching an initiative at my campus that would bridge individuals and action. A community of interest emerged and it became a successful foray into the world of international development. Compared to the previous stint in volunteering, the potential to help mankind through UNICEF was much, much greater. The cover of charity becomes even sexier when it turns international and many of my colleagues in development seem to think greater potential can make a wanna-be-do-gooder appear, well, even ‘gooder.’ If the first place was People Mag, UNICEF was Vogue Italia.
Over the next few years I moved to Boston and joined a for-profit institution while continuing altruistic pursuits through donating and volunteering. My understanding of the meaning of charity began to change the day I stepped into a boardroom and was asked to brainstorm CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) tactics to improve the company’s image. Charity became a commercial and sneaky endeavor. I would have had less of a problem with CSR had this particular company not been full of financial woes. It was clear charity was to be a distracting silk-screen for the monster borne beneath it. But wait, is that what charity has been all along?
Was charity in the form of not-for-profits or organizations with global agendas? In the needy hand of a beggar? Intwined in corporate bubble-wrap? Was is in the form of fancy packaging and glossy, well-versed print? Was it ultimately a self-serving charade? Do we do it because it simply makes us feel better or because we are led to believe we are better.
Over the years, I observed acquaintances volunteer time while complaining in doing so, seemingly charitable people gossip about others, friends advocating for charities on Facebook having not donating to them personally, do-gooders acting unkindly to strangers and unwelcoming to newcomers and a plethora of antithetical silk-screens that everyone displays (myself included). To think charity is somehow a process in which the most benevolent of us participate or contribute to is one of today’s greatest moral deceptions. That it is something we do sometimes and for the needy. We are duped by our own conceptions of charity and goodness.
A lot of it isn’t our fault. We are prey to good advertising. To corporate sponsors. To the emptiness inside our beings longing to be filled. To munificent imagery like Angelina Jolie and her brood of multi-colored adoptees or tightly-packed bundles of goods being passed around refugee camps, and under-nourished bellies being filled. These are heart-warming, but can be misleading if observed alone as charity can seem reserved only for the less fortunate, for the Third World charity case, for the impoverished spoon-holder.
I was impressed recently when a friend of mine, Bahieh Khamsi, outwardly wrote on her blog “I need to stop thinking I am some kind of hero for doing what I’m doing, for living where I’m living. I need to stop thinking I have won my place in heaven by virtue of having moved to a Third World country.”
Charity is in action, and how that action reverberates throughout our whole life. It is a conscious, meditative and selfless way of being. It is not reserved for any one region or any one class of people. It is a giving that supersedes materialistic deficiencies. Organizations that do good can be called charitable; but charity in itself is more than the confines of an institution or fund. It is a way of life and a celebration of human potential. It is a transformative energy. It is sacrifice, forgiveness, helping neighbors, calling loved ones, befriending strangers.
In a Tablet, Baha’u’llah says “The essence of charity is for the servant to recount the blessings of his Lord, and to render thanks unto Him at all times and under all conditions.” His great-grandson Shoghi Effendi once wrote: “In philanthropic enterprises and acts of charity, in promotion of the general welfare and furtherance of the public good including that of every group without any exceptions whatever, let the beloved of God attract the favourable attention of all, and lead all the rest.”
May we do-gooders find, wherever we may reside, goodness in being; may we slip off the shimmering facade unwarrantedly covering the stitches of our humanity and unhinge the silkscreen that has suddenly become too burdensome to bear.