to give or not to give | a few thoughts on charity

Charity happened to me before I happened to charity. I come from a country used to rely on foreign aid, and then curse the donors for not sending better stuff. I remember looking at those big boxes of clothes and books somebody had willingly parted with, and painfully wonder who they were. As a kid, I was convinced that the kind strangers sending me colorful toys and (only lightly worn) Nike shoes are some soft, miraculous giants above all my imagination and power to comprehend. I could swear that their world is magical, wealthy, happy and rich in colors, smells and tastes (as opposed to the cold, grim, grey, decrepit reality outside my own windows).

Their gesture of giving us things, from afar and anonymously, had such a heavy impact on me that I would sniff the clothes I got over and over again, lost in a thin haze of comfort. I remember looking for traces of pheromones and memories- memories that, when designed by my own little 8 year-old mind, made me weep. I remember feeling a strange combination of sorrow (for myself- for needing their rags, for never getting to know what the other world was being like) and admiration (for what, I took as  selflessness- because I was convinced that somewhere in the world, someone is running around barefoot so I can have their shoes).

Things are still very important to me, although, since I did not grow up putting tags on people based on what they own, I don’t identify with things and I’m easy to give them away. I still prefer to receive gifts that belonged to someone, rather than new items. And, as soon as I get to a place where I feel I have enough, I share. I’ve been doing that since I was 8 and I rallied my entire second grade class to collect toys and sweets for the kids in our local orphanage (remember the stories and documentaries about the abused orphans of post-communist Romania? Those ones.). I believe in sharing. And I believe in charity at its decent, manageable, zero-overhead best.

Nowadays I’m tackling one charity project at a time, some by myself and some through others, and I’ve learned a lot about how different and how far apart people’s perceptions are of charity.

Here are my thoughts:

1. The result is the most important part of charity. If at the end someone’s life is easier thanks to you, that’s all that matters.

2. What you feel like and your image are not (as) important. What people think of you for doing charity work, whether they question your intentions or not, whether you get their praise or not is not important, and shouldn’t be why you’re doing it- if you ever forget that, slap yourself and go back to #1.

3. Needs and wants are relative. Do not judge someone else’s level of comfort, happiness or need based on what you would like for yourself. Sometimes a hungry woman does not need an art class to make her feel better, but food- so do not impose your charity on someone just because you have a pathetic, annoying, patronizing itch to save someone.

4. Remind yourself to give. If you need a prompter to be good, make sure you put it in your phone calendar, or your Google calendar, or your wall calendar- whatever works. We are all not born Mother Theresa, and there’s no big shame in getting caught up with life and forgetting about the less fortunate- just make sure you take all precautions and find ways to remind yourself-or force yourself- to give. It does wonders, really.

5. It doesn’t matter why people give. You shouldn’t care whether they’re some big shots trying to launder money, or doing it for tax purposes, bragging rights, or to see their own names on a plaque. You should also try and not think too much about why some of your friends and relatives were not so supportive. In both cases, remember #1.  And stop taking it so bloody personally.  And- more importantly- keep asking.

LATEST PROJECT: Cambodia orphanage renovation, May 2012
Click on the image for more info

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