Let me admit straight away that it never made any sense to me… Growing up in India, being taught in a ‘convent’ school, charity was one of those things — it was all around us. You see poor people around you, you do what you can and fret whether you have perpetuated a system, or fed the mafia. You give to the people around you, to your temples, and then to the temples of others. Festivals were about charity — many forms of worship included feeding people in their hundreds. Heck, as a Punjabi, I was even shocked to realise that the caste that is considered the uppermost in the traditional hierarchy was often addressed as a ‘mangta’ (begger, asker) by my irascible great-grandmother, but we still shared the monthly ration with the local priest quite naturally. The first fruit of each season went to them, as part of community service. Charity was what you did as part of the everyday, with no expectation of reward, return or even acknowledgement.
The world of charity was full of cliches, and indeed we used them generously in school assemblies and debates. Charity begins at home. Let your left hand not find out what the right has done (yes, in a good way). Do good and throw it in a well. Act, and do not worry about the fruit of your actions (just one interpretation of that verse). You did good, you moved on. You couldn’t do anything — you carried your secret shame with yourself, and moved on.
The Ice Bucket Challenge has been the last straw for me — I sigh in exasperation. How does it help anybody if you run, cycle, climb a mountain or dunk yourself in (scarce — but we will tackle that another time, (or maybe Californians, Yezidis or others will)) water? How is value created over here? Why should I pay you to do these things? I would happily contribute to build that classroom, or save that goat or whatever your cause if you can make me care enough about it to sacrifice my next cafe latte (is that the advertising cliche they use these days?).
I can understand people giving books, clothes and used items for sale — the proceeds of which pay for whatever cause is being espoused. I can understand bake-sales. I get direct appeals. But frankly, if you take a bath using a bucket (which millions do anyway), and if your water is cold (which again is a bit of a meh), and you do it with your clothes on(small mercies), I fail to see how it logically connects with the money you donate. It grabs attention, surely. It gets people to join in the movement, yes — we have evidence of that. But if the world does not care for the charitable cause, and joins in because it is an attention seeking bandwagon, then boy, we have bigger problems than the one the charity is addressing.
Charity is always an exchange. We humans are selfish creatures and do things to feel good, at the very least. But when we reach ‘look at me, I’m so with-the-latest-trend, and, love-me-because-I-am-showing-you-how-good-I-can-be’, then I think we have sunk to a level of hunger and greed that is, frankly, embarrassing.
Or maybe, we are all just little boys and girls who are standing wet and cold in front of cameras and asking to be loved a little bit. Maybe, that love, that attention is the true act of charity in our age.
(This was published on Medium, n August 21, 2014, linked here: https://medium.com/@Meetasengupta/charity-in-our-age-7fc92d05e8d0)