Don’t take this the wrong way, but here’s the honest reality of it — here’s what it comes down to: after 31 years I’ve got too many friends who are too nice and too bloody physically fit and too willing to give up their weekend and spend it doing something amazing for charity (I even have a few friends who aren’t in any way physically fit — you know who you are, you really do, don’t deny it — but who are still willing to put themselves through physical and emotional hell every so often). As a direct result of this, like a lot of people I know, most months I find myself giving money to one charity or another and obliged to consider giving money to many more. One week it’s to fight Cancer, the next it’s for people newly blinded in accidents at work — people like you and I who really need our help and rely on donations to live. I want to give to them all but I can’t. And it’s getting more difficult. It seems like every single year, more money is needed and more people are being amazing.
Balls. It’s a conundrum. The last thing I want is for people to read this — friends, especially — and think Well there’s no point asking Chris if he wants to sponsor me.
Last week was particularly charity-heavy: walking through town I saw a pair of eyes scoping me out and below the eyes a good-looking female body and hands holding a clipboard with all the familiar charity logos and colours that you’d be a proper moron to just ignore. The eyes belonged to a stunning woman in her early twenties, so I was done for. She knew it, I knew it, and as soon as I stopped she started telling me all about how if I gave just £5 every month I’d be saving a little African child from bad water and bad rice, bad diseases and a short unhappy life. Basically, what she was saying was that if I couldn’t find it in me to give a pathetically small £5 per month then I was a bad person. A bad person who didn’t give a shit if little African children died and led short unhappy lives no better than those animals you see on those ads on TV where the dog has been left outside all night and his/her face says I may as well be dead. (I do realise that those dogs are actors from some kind of dog acting academy, but for the sake of this blog let’s pretend they’re genuinely suffering, shall we.)
I knew I was going to have to say it, it was just a matter of time.
“I really can’t,” I said after a while, “I’m really sorry but it’s not going to happen. I can’t do it, I wish I could.”
Chris you’re a git said my inner voice, followed by What you mean is that you can do it, it’s just you won’t bloody do it. There was then a brief argument as I told the voice that yeah, I could do it, I had the money, but what if I kept on doing it? And there I go again: calling it my inner voice is a great way of pretending that it’s not really me, it’s actually another moral entity which keeps me on track and knows so much better. It’s quite pathetic, actually. You probably do the same though, so that makes me feel at least a little better. For a while.
But let me qualify this, please. It wasn’t like I didn’t care — I did, and I do — and it wasn’t as if I just walked on by, was it? (Not that I could have, but still, I like to think I might have been able to ignore this woman’s fine-looking appearance if I’d really wanted to. Maybe…). I’d listened to everything she had to say to me — where the money was going specifically and how it would be spent once it arrived, all that stuff and more. I’d even asked a load of questions which I bet most people can’t be arsed to do, not to mention discussed with her at length about how 90% of people just walk on by with seemingly not a care in the world. So it hadn’t been a waste. I might communicate all this to someone else and they might tell someone else and they MIGHT give £5,000 to charity. It could happen, and I’d have been a part of it.
Except nothing made me feel better about it.
And that was when I started to feel really fucking guilty. After a pause which was like a punch in the gut, she said: “You know, you can give four pounds per month if you like,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be five.”
“Or just two?”
“Or even just one?”
£1 per month: I mean, come on, seriously…
It’s ONE POUND PER MONTH.
That was what did it, what finally really broke me. If I was a bad person for not giving £5 per month every month, then what was I for not giving £1 every month?
A complete and utter arsehole, is what. And so much more than that, even. A time-wasting arsehole. An arsehole who sadistically leads charity workers into great big long discussions, before cutting them down with the harshest of responses…
It stacked up and up and up.
The next thing I knew, I was now even worse than the people who just walk on by! All because I’d wanted to hear what she had to say and get where she was coming from.
As it became clear that it was time for me to continue walking — for the real onslaught of my grief and mental torment to begin, in other words — and for her to do her job and actually find someone who was prepared to pay, it really got to me, all this, and I felt obliged to explain myself before I left. Had to explain myself. Couldn’t just leave her thinking I was some git who didn’t care. It wasn’t only about the money, I said, it was the principle…the principle that at least once a week I buy a Big Issue, and that at least once every 4 weeks I sponsor somebody for something. More than that, there was the how much? debate to explain to her, because it’s fine if you want to give to 50 different charities, but in that case you’re hardly going to be able to afford to give much to each charity, are you? And so I started going off on one, I suppose — although she did seem interested, I think — about how I’d rather give to fewer charities and give more each time so that I felt like I was making a genuine difference. But whatever I said it didn’t seem to matter, and however I said it, it just didn’t sound right. It’d sounded right in my head, but when I said it out loud, the cruel reality of how we think about charity — yes, I am now sharing this responsibility with you — hit me. The call of injustice and involuntary discrimination was haunting the back of my mind all the time, making me constantly wary of everything I had said, as well as anything that I could potentially say. I still felt like a serious git and couldn’t see that changing any time soon. No matter what I said, I was going to come-off looking selfish. As if a packet of Minstrels was worth more than a child’s life (they are amazing, but they’re definitely not that amazing. If I didn’t buy any chocolate for a year, how much could I give to charity then?).
Like I said, this time it really got to me. It didn’t usually get to me this much, it was just that there were a few things which made this incident slightly different to so many I’d been in before (aside from her looks, I mean). One was that I could see she genuinely cared about what she did — that’s to say she cared more obviously and openly than the charity workers I had stopped to talk with before — and another was that the conversation had flowed and not been dragged down by any of the usual formalities that occur when one stranger converses with another and the other doesn’t give his money. For these reasons, it felt more like a chat between friends, and this is where we come full circle: I find it hard to say no to friends when they ask me directly if I’ll sponsor them, or when I see their status on Facebook. Because that’s difficult, isn’t it? To tell a friend that you don’t want to support them…what does that make you look like? And you know, one day, it might be you needing the support, so there’s also that to consider, too. It’s much bigger than just you.
What’s the answer, then? Weigh up the causes that are more worth it and only sponsor them? No, it’s not the answer, I already tried that. A) it’s impossible…the very nature of most charities is that they are indeed worth it and B) when you stop in the street there’s not enough time to work out if you feel you should give to a charity and analyse your emotions. There’s your gut instinct telling you to run to the nearest ATM and take out your life-savings, sure, but that’s just your primary reaction to the stimulus: you want to do something good, you don’t want to let people down,you don’t want people to suffer — the image is visceral and the image of suffering is alive in your mind with all the facts and figures you’re presented with, and it HURTS. Being a selfish human being who spends more every day than Ethiopians earn in 5 years is horrible and there is no way around that fact. Even if you stand there for a few minutes, it’s impossible to come to a conclusion that doesn’t collide directly or indirectly with everything else going on in your mind at the time. If you had 24 hours to think about it, that might be easier…but most of the time you don’t. Most of the time you have to decide there and then if you want to walk on by or not.
It’s really bloody hard, isn’t it?
The thing is, it’s not like there’s ever any serious pressure on me to sponsor my friends, or people who stop me in the street. But you know what? S0metimes that actually makes it even worse. I’m ashamed to admit it, but without the pressure to guide and coerce me, I’m left on my own to come up with the right answer. And there is no right answer, but there is this one certainty: so long as I can’t give money to all the charities out there, the likelihood is that I’m gonna feel like a git…
I suppose one good thing is that I have friends who want to do stuff and do do stuff (believe it or not but another is that I have plans to run for charity, although right now that’s still some way off). Aside from being a compliment to me — I’d much rather be associated with kind people who run marathons than nasty criminals who run organised crime — it must mean I am surrounded with people who care about the world they live in, and that has to be a very good thing.
Now I just need to work out how to sponsor every single person I know with enough cash that it really does make a difference…I have a feeling this might take some time, but I hope the day comes soon.