As I was walking down the street in downtown Montreal this week, I was approached by quite a few people who wanted my support for some cause or another. The Red Cross guy was friendly and direct, giving us a pleasant "Have a good day!" even though we didn't stop to talk to him. The Animal Rights girl was a little more aggressive in her questions and implied that because we didn't stop and sign her petition, we were in favour of animal cruelty. Getting behind a cause is a trendy thing to do and charity is tacked onto any number of activities these days: everything from wearing ribbons to running 5 kilometers to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro to buying a piece of art at an auction to going to a gala. And this trend makes me a bit sad.
When I look at what is done in the name of charity, it seems odd to me that the actions are often very far removed from the cause they are supposedly supporting. In fact, events are usually organised in such a way as to draw people in by making them feel good, inspiring them, and providing them with a sense of adventure or accomplishment. And the goal is usually to raise as much money as possible (as if money were the answer to most of our problems).
But what about really, truly getting involved with something we say we care about? In a way that puts us in direct contact with the people or problems we are trying to help?
It really is very simple to do something charitable, but it is also costly. Buying some new running shoes, running 5 kilometers in a public event, getting some of my friends and family to sponsor me, and feeling really good about that accomplishment is not a particularly effective way to show that I care about those suffering from cancer (in my opinion). If I really care, why don't I volunteer at a palliative care centre? Or take the time to visit someone who is battling for their life and cook them a meal or clean their house? Or why don't I go back to school and get training to work in the medical field? Instead of being part of a mountain-climbing expedition for African aid and having the adventure of a life-time, why don't I adopt a child from an African orphanage and give them a new life? Why don't I help recent immigrants and refugees as they struggle to establish a new home in my country?
Sadly, charity too often becomes more about us feeling empowered and inspired than about actually helping. Real charity is not a big, loud rally, it does not clang pots and pans to draw attention to itself, it does not need to organize a fundraising event which will include influential people, it does not have a budget or monetary goal, and it does not usually offer an adrenaline rush. Love shows itself by getting up close to another person, by sharing in someone's struggle, by listening to a painful story and not flinching at ragged scars, by cleaning up after those who can't clean up after themselves, by spending our own resources on someone whose resources are depleted and not advertising our generosity. Acts of charitable service are costly, tiring, and often emotionally and physically draining. But they are worth it.
Let us get back to real charity - charity where the rubber meets the road, where we get our hands dirty, and where we are privileged to actually see and touch the people we are trying to help. Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is a great feat, but a greater accomplishment would be to scale the challenging slopes of unselfishness and humility and charity by serving those around us. I greatly admire the passion that many people display by getting involved in different causes, but let our activism not become self-serving and irrelevant. Love cares more for others than for self.
Here is the trailer from a documentary that asks the question: what is the pink ribbon campaign (breast cancer) really tied to? Pink Ribbons It is worth a look.
the photo: window and greenery at College de Montreal.