Friday, December 12, 2008

Attack of the Charitable Causes

What If We Give it Away? - R.E.M. (mp3)
You Can't Take It With You - Kelly Willis (mp3)

I don't know when it started. Maybe it's always been like this, but it only started affecting me once I hit a certain age of perceived tenderheartedness and incorrectly presumed financial security. But at some point in the past decade, and with an aggression and melodrama that seems to increase with each passing year, it's been drilled into my skull that I'm just not doing enough for Other People.

Here's just a list of the things that have been "organized" and "recommended" in the last two months by groups in which I am a part:
  • Purchase instruments for poor middle school band by church choir
  • Pay for and deliver meals to families in ICU waiting rooms by Sunday School class
  • Sponsor a child for Christmas by different local choir
  • Sponsor a child for Christmas by my office mates
  • Sponsor a child for Christmas with the group of students I mentor
  • Support the homeless organization on whose board I served for a year
  • Support breast cancer research
  • Tithe to my church
  • Operation Christmas Child through church
  • "Loaves of Love" change boxes through church
  • Donate items or money for work in Darfur and Rwanda
  • Donate items to the troops
  • Pledge money to Habitat for Humanity
  • Donate canned goods
  • Donate coats
  • Donate shoes
  • Donate ties
  • Buy ornaments to support a local private school
  • Give to our public school's "annual fund"
  • Give change to Salvation Army bellringers
  • At least a handful of others I know I'm forgetting
  • And let's not forget the monthly deduction to United Way, since we've been told at our workplaces year after year that supporting that one organization is almost like magically supporting half of every charitable cause in existence.
My wife and I are not poor, nor are we remotely in need of things we don't have, but we're not exactly swimming in spare cash. We can't afford decent life insurance. We're struggling to stash a few bucks away to prepare for the multi-million-dollar investment that will be the educational costs of three children. My retirement/401k has dropped down to 3/4 of one year of my salary. We're constantly trying -- as in making a sincere and deliberate effort -- to live a fiscally responsible life while also enjoying the little expenses just a little here and there along the way.

This isn't a cry for pity. It's merely an assertion that we're not exactly the Gates Foundation. And it's exasperating -- no, exhausting -- to give to our church, to the United Way, and to at least a dozen or so other causes at the levels we do yet still find ourselves having to turn down five or six or 10 pleas for help for every one cause or fundraiser we support.

In some ways, it's started to feel like I'm in some Dawn of the Charitable Dead movie. At first, it was just one or two Charity Zombies, but you could inject them with the Antivenom, and they'd be cured. But slowly, inevitably, more and more Charity Zombies start showing up, and you're running out of Antivenom, and you realize you're not going to be able to save them all. Hell, you can't even save more than one or two. So mostly you start to panic, and you grab the shotgun and the machete and get your family and try to protect them from this onslaught of Needy Zombies, but they're coming through the windows and down the chimney and from the basement crawlspace.

And you see that some of these zombies are just little children. And some of them are your relatives. And some of them are people from the small town where you grew up. But you only have five doses of Antivenom left, and you were really hoping you could hold onto a couple just in case your own children get infected. So you're forced into playing God and decide which ones you'll save and which ones will feast off the living for eternity.

Shit, Charitable Zombies were multiplying with increasing verve when the economy was sailing along! Now that it's going to hell in a Hummer, the zombie population ain't gonna wane anytime soon.

Some will think -- perhaps rightly -- that I'm an asshole for complaining about this. Perhaps my aggravation is more of a sign of my own conscience haunting me than it is a sign that I'm drowning in causes. But wouldn't I more of an asshole if I could somehow numb myself to this? If having to turn down so many of these (usually) noble and worthwhile efforts didn't phase me? Is there some magical formula for pulling oneself out of this "never enough" dilemma? Can we ever give enough, do enough, pay enough, donate enough to stem the tide of our own conscience?

When I'm overwhelmed by all the charitable pleas and find myself wanting to wash my hands of it all, I try soothing myself by reading all those kickass Mother Teresa quotes that remind me I'm doing important work by being a loving parent and bringing happiness into others' lives, that small things matter in the big picture. Her quotes are a balm, even if their efficacy is fleeting when the zombies are at your door.

"What If We Give It Away?" is from Life's Rich Pageant. "You Can't Take It With You" is from Easy. Both are available on iTunes or and are highly recommended, truly awesome albums.


Daytimerush said...

You still owe me money...

Bob said...

Audrey is right--in fact, right now, the card reads, "With Much Love from the Development Office, except for Billy, who spent your present money on the new Guns N Roses cd."

Billy said...

Notice how it doesn't say "Development and Communications Offices"? No respect, sayeth Mr. Dangerfield. No respect.

BTW, if I didn't think it would have been cruel, I would have happily donated my copy of Chinese Democracy rather than pay actual money.