Sunday, January 31, 2010

Donation as Consumption

There's a standard do-gooder's conundrum, which I can illustrate via a real world example.

I viewed this YouTube video:

....of a superb high school orchestra from Ohio playing Tchaikovsky with tons of heart-breaking soul in a national competition (they tied for runner-up). I read the
NY Times story about how these are mostly poor kids, and how the concertmaster (i.e. top violinist), a brilliant teenager, is living on her own and being forced by circumstance to abandon her dreams. The orchestra's teetering; the school system offers little support, doesn't provide instruments, and kids must actually pay-to-play - a $55 fee for the school year which some can't afford. And this is one of the lucky cases; many schools these days have no music program at all. (Before you read on, please give that Times article a read. It's well-written and touching.)

I get caught up in stories like this...and want to help. I could afford to endow a couple of kids into the orchestra who can't afford the $55, or maybe donate a couple of used violas.

But here's where the conundrum arises. There are myriad similar situations in schools all over the country. And there are myriad brilliant kids who've been forced to abandon their dreams. And there are more important problems in the world than this (e.g. starvation). So it would be very easy to haplessly throw up my arms and decline to help, given the enormity of it all. Sort of the way tourists in India quickly learn to stop giving coins to the multitudes of beggars carrying starving babies. Hey, you can't help them all!

Here's the trick to getting through that: just help what you bump into. I didn't happen to get emotionally involved in the story of some other school. It was this one that caught my attention. And today I happen not to have hunger or disease on my mind; it's Tchaikovsky. This problem, in other words, is one I noticed, cared about, and can help solve...a little.

As for not being able to "help them all", true. But every bit of help helps someone. So it's irrational to surrender to feelings of futility and do nothing. Why forego assistance we can provide just because there's much we can't? Behind this feeling of futility is the fear that one could easily drain one's coffers aiming to help each and every problem out there. First of all, that simply won't happen (except in our overblown fantasies of sainthood). Second, that fear stems from pure selfishness. The mark of a selfish person is a fear of being overly generous.

There's nothing wrong with budgeting in hard limits, as we do with other expenditures. After all, we don't throw up our hands and refuse to buy books or movies because we "can't buy them all" (and might easily drain our coffers in so trying). We simply budget our consumption. And donations ought to be viewed as consumption. Paying money to buy improvement to a given situation is what consumerism is all about. Most purchases are intended to solve problems of various sorts, and there's a satisfaction in that. And the interesting thing is that buying solutions to problems which happen to be external to us feels equally satisfying.

It's no different, in other words, from any other sort of shopping. I might buy milk, eggs, a few magazines, and a small problem or two solved. Every once in a while I'll buy a car, computer, or bigger problem solved. Smaller budgets solve smaller problems, but at any scale (above the level of struggling to pay rent and feed kids), the same principles apply. Helping someone else's kids doesn't feel any more like "throwing money away" than helping mine.

I don't feel compelled to buy every car...or to fix every problem. I don't bring home every Trader Joe's product; I pick, choose, and budget. If something that I need captures my attention, and I can afford it, I buy it. It's the same with donating to issues capturing my attention. I don't fight the impulse, nor do I deflect it by zooming the camera out to the futile enormity of it all. I donate precisely as I consume (and, with SIGA having tripled this year, I'm happy to budget higher!)

So...I'll help two anonymous strangers in Ohio play in their high school orchestra next year, for about the cost of a fancy dinner for two. A good purchase!

Finally, while it's easy to sit back and help problems that funnel to me via mainstream channels like the NY Times, more acute, less publicized problems can be discovered via active investigation. And that's where one can put one's intrepid chowhounding skills to work. Again, donating is consuming. And what is chowhounding, but extra-skillful consumption?

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