Those who can’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it ~~George Santana
In an I talked about what I’ve contributed to charities in past years.—Not much!
In this post I’d like to explore why. I am firmly convinced that in order to go forward in a different direction you’ve got to know where you’ve been. Otherwise you spend your time circling those wagons in an endless prairie of sameness. Don’t want to do that! So here is what I have learned about charitable giving through personal past experience.
Often we inculcate core values from parents, sometimes even before we can talk or make sense of what we are hearing. The first two reasons I don’t give to charities I can perhaps lay on my parents’ doorstep.
Lesson number 1: The bootstrap—everyone can do it if they only want to
I was raised in a family of middle-class working folks—both mom and dad were government workers. My dad would use to light his pipe after dinner and sit in the living room reading the paper. I can remember the crisp snap as he folded each section over. I was waiting, because I got the funnies when he was done, but only when he was done. So I was paying attention to what he was doing. Dagwood was at stake.
He had returned from World War II, and as a young father was having a hard time making sense of a peace time world. He’d read an article about welfare and snort, “Why can’t those people do something about their situation? I did. I fought for my country. I got an education. Everyone can, if they want to. They just have to try harder.”
I learned that they just need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
Lesson number 2: Ignore them and they’ll go away
I got the next important lesson about charity from my mother. We had gone to live overseas for a couple of years while my dad worked for a government related agency. He often left for weeks at a time to work on projects in outlying areas. We in turn stayed in our apartment in a large metropolitan area. Occasionally my mom would venture forth to buy groceries to keep us going.
I was about 11 at the time and my sibs were considerably younger. Looking back now I have considerable empathy for my mother, trying to raise these little ones in a place far from home. We would go down to the local market and because of our American clothes would be immediately swamped with hoards of beggars.
These were not the US panhandlers standing at the intersection with the hardboard sign saying ‘Will work for food’ or the druggie outside McDs with a hand out. No, these folks were the dregs of society: blind, legless, horribly maimed. It hurt to even look at them. And once you gave to one, they gathered like flies to a newly butchered piece of meat.
My mother would gather in her chicks, her mouth would set grimly, and our pace would quicken. “Walk faster,” she would command, and I could hear the fear in her voice. “Don’t look at them.”
I learned that if you just ignored them, they would go away.
Lesson number 3: Tithing can be dangerous to your health
In restrospect this one is funny, but didn’t seem so at the time. In my teenage years I got religion. Of course it didn’t hurt that the boy I was going with had been raised in a strong fundamentalist church. We were inseparable. We ate together every noon in the high school cafeteria. I’d go watch his basketball practice after school. We’d spend hours on the phone each evening. It was true love!
So of course I had to attend his church, and then chose to be baptized, a second time, by full immersion. (My infant baptism didn’t count in this sect.) We’d go to church twice on Sunday and then attend the midweek services. And participate in the youth groups, of course.
I didn’t have much, but I knew it was important to be doing what my boyfriend was doing, so I pledged to support the church work through offerings. Occasionally we’d pray together before going to a dance or even before making out. It was an interesting time of emotional highs and lows.
My folks were watching all of this with a jaundiced eye. To be honest, part of the spice of the experience had to be teenage rebellion against authority. “How can it be wrong?” I’d challenge my parents. It was religion. Didn’t they believe in religion?
Tithing was a part of my boyfriend’s church, although it hadn’t been for mine, and of course I gave not just 10% but at least 11% It didn’t matter that most of what I was giving was money I had gotten from my parents, because after all, it was for the church. I went around quoting Bible verses to my rapidly dwindling group of friends and making myself generally obnoxious in the name of the Trinity.
Then the bubble burst. Boyfriend and I had a falling out. I was no longer in love. I was crushed! My world had fallen into pieces around me.
But the church kept coming. They called at all hours of the day and night. They showed up on my doorstep at inconvenient times: once my folks had left for work and I had just gotten up. I was in my bathrobe and my hair in curlers when I answered the door—talk about teenage embarrassment! Nevertheless, they still wanted to come in and talk about the Lord’s work. They got quite angry when I said no.
The tithing didn’t go away either. I started getting dunning letters—first from the church and later from their collection agency that my pledge was overdue. They would quote me Bible chapter and verse, trying to get me to pony up.
Sigh! It took me a while to extricate myself from this entanglement. My folks, to their credit, did not say I told you so. But whole experience created an indelible impression on me.
I learned that giving can be bad for your mental well-being.
Lesson 4: Door-to-door solicitors can be a bunch of crooks
Fast forward to college. I was living in an actual house, rather than a dorm, proud of my independence. My altruism was on the rise again, and I wanted to do good. In the evening, I’d answer the door, welcoming the interruption as an excuse not to study for the chemistry final.
They used to say that hobos during the depression would put a secret mark on the door lintel of people who were ‘soft marks’ for handouts. I think my entire front porch was covered with them! And I believed everyone who came to solicit.
I was a sucker for Girl Scout cookies (still am)! I’d sign up for magazine subscriptions without a qualm—can’t have too many Reader’s Digests, right? Donations for this charity, that charity, for all charities, got my spare change. I didn’t have much in the world, but I wanted to share it.
And then something changed. As I got older, my view of the society I lived in darkened. One night, I got mugged on the way home from a late night class. Another time, my home was burglarized. Later that year, my car was sideswiped by somebody not carrying insurance.
The final blow to my innocence came with the assassination of President Kennedy. The shift to my worldview was gradual and didn’t happen all at once. But there finally came a point when I realized that maybe I shouldn’t accept everything I heard as true; that the world also contained crooks and truly bad people.
I learned that I needed to be cautious about what who I believed and what I gave.
Lesson 5: Requests for charity can be unpleasant
As I and other individuals became more wary, the requests for funds became more aggressive. I’d get calls—always at dinner time—from the lawmen’s benevolence society. That one gave me pause! If I didn’t contribute, would they give me a ticket as I pulled out of my driveway without looking both directions first?
I would get a telephone call just as I sat down to watch the evening news and eat my pizza. It would be some poor soul trying to solicit for the local symphony. I got downright rude in my replies: “Don’t you know this is dinner hour?” “Why can’t you people…” Every now and then after a bad day at work I’d slam the phone down.
The Mag Crews started coming to my front door. Do you remember the exposes on these folks? These are the operators that would sweep a poor urban neighborhood, gathering up a group of adolescents. They would train the kids and bus them into well-off neighborhoods to sell, sell, sell.
The pitch was, and is unfortunately, always the same. “I belong to a local high school.” “I’m are trying to make good of my life.” “I’ll win a contest if you only subscribe…” I felt sorry for the kids, but hated the approach. If I said no and closed the door, they’d peer in the window and keep talking!
It got so bad I didn’t go to the front door anymore if it wasn’t somebody I knew or a UPS truck parked out front. If I saw that team of guys coming down the street with white starched shirts, ties, and black pants, I’d turn out the porch light and go hide in the back bedroom.
When I did give to a charity, and there were a few that still held my attention–Habitat for Humanity, the Nature Conservancy, the local food bank–my mailbox was then flooded with requests from other charities: free soup spoons, address labels, passes to events that had already passed.
I would be contact by a dozen other charities—all in the name of giving to those ‘less fortunate’. It was the beggars on the street corner all over again. And I noticed that these reached a particular crescendo on the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
These intrusions on my personal life were unpleasant, uninvited, and unwelcome.
But the real tragedy was that I generalized from these events to ALL charitable giving, and I had yet another reason not to give. I was turning into a complete and thoroughly entrenched Grinch.
To make matters worse, I didn’t like myself when I thought about not giving, so I didn’t think about it very much. Nobody likes to feel guilty!
I learned that the experience of charitable giving can emotionally repugnant.
Where do I go from here?
Everything that I have read seems to indicate that giving is good for the soul. That giving back is where I need to be at this point in my life if my life is to have meaning. That giving is a way to connect with not only the rest of humanity, but also with the planet on which we live. That a spiritual person (and I believe myself to be one) will be charitable.
I don’t like to be a Scrooge. I don’t want to feel guilty. I want to change. But how?
Having explored from I’ve come from, perhaps the next step is to learn a little bit about how charities actually do work in the world today. I want to know about the myths and the realities of giving. That will become my next step in this journey of discovery.