I think the hardest part of charity is finding somebody who has less than you who you connect with on a personal level.
I'm an optimistic person who feels that most people probably would help somebody else out if the right opportunity presented itself, so the obvious question is 'What is the right opportunity?'
With Johannesburg as my frame of reference, I'm presented with a range of the usual streetlight beggars (most of which I'm immune to), the obligatory coin cans at tills, the sporadic e-mail chain-letters begging for donations (picking up noticeably on Mandela Day) and then the handful of Big Name Charities which assure me that they can distribute my money on behalf to Needy Causes and Other Such Things.
The problem with all of this is that there's no feedback, is there? Do you know whether the streetlight beggar uses your money for food for his kids or for his drug habit? Do you know whether those old clothes you donated ever ended up clothing anybody, or whether that money actually did find its way to flood victims?
In a career detour a couple of years ago I happened to work as operations manager for a brief period, and one of my responsibilities involved managing a few security guards. I ended up bonding with one of the guards, who I felt was a bright young man faced with all the obvious challenges a low-income job and little formal education poses.
I've already mentioned here that I've been giving him driving lessons most weekends, because it's something simple for me (I have a car and some time) and it's potentially life-changing for him (certainly opening up new job opportunities).
This weekend, however, I tried something different. Please understand that I'm sharing this with you not to seem particularly special, which I am not, but rather to encourage some readers here with similar options to perhaps exercise them for the common good.
Long story short, I knew the security guard also likes new cars, but found out he's never been to a formal car show (or to Nasrec, for that matter). I took him with me and my wife over the weekend to visit the Johannesburg International Motor Show, and it was a special opportunity in many ways - not only did he get to enjoy sitting in cars he's never even dreamed about, but he got to experience his first time in a real 4x4 experience and see his first car drifting action.
To top things off, my wife and I were intending to go watch the new movie, Gravity, at the cinemas in 3D, so because the last time he'd been to the cinemas was ten years ago and he'd never seen a 3D movie of any kind (in cinemas or television) we bought him a ticket and took him with us ... awesome movie, and it just rounded out an amazing weekend. Needless to say, there's one more 3D convert in the world.
As I drove back home after dropping the guard off after the movie, I stopped at a traffic light and was approached by another beggar. Dismissing him with the usual tactic of an apologetic nod and staring at the lights grimly until they turned green, I couldn't help reflecting on the differences.
The major difference between the beggar and the security guard is that the latter never asked me for my help - I chose to give it voluntarily, on my terms and in a manner I felt positive would broaden his world view (and based on his reactions resoundingly has). Like I noted above, any money given to the beggar would be received, used somehow and forgotten ... just an endless cycle of dependence and even mute resentment in some cases.
For readers jumping to the underlined bit at the end, you're in luck! This is the conclusion:
If every person helped out one person less fortunate that themselves, we'd all benefit. Not just a handful of nameless recipients behind the masking hand of charities, but everybody ... the beggar, the security guard, you and me, and that top executive in his BMW 7 Series.
Why aren't we doing this? If you haven't yet watched the movie Pay It Forward, I recommend you do. It elaborates on the principle, but for me charity can and even should be a lot more personal.
In life we all need mentors, and people who can give us the things which are small to them but big to us. For the security guard it's driving lessons and a 3D movie. For somebody less fortunate it might be a warm meal and a taxi fare to visit his wife. For me, heck... there are dozens of things I need, not only want. It's the same for everybody.
We all want, and we all have something to give. It's just a question of bridging the gap and social inhibitions and finding that person, and approaching it sensitively and with the necessary investment of time and empathy. If we all did it, we'd all benefit, and the core principle is this: as long as people are always investing in people with less than themselves, they'll always stand to benefit by more than they receive.
You don't give to receive, obviously. I certainly am not. It's just a logical conclusion, however, which turns the dreary guilt-ridden concept of charity into something more dynamic and potentially uplifting for all of society. It's ultimately one of those 'It's so simple, why isn't everybody doing it?' moments.
I'm doing it, so can you.
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