Next Thursday, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities across the United States will be fully staffed with smiling, happy volunteers eager to distribute food and other assistance to those in greatest need. Families across the country will come together in the spirit of giving, and they will return home filled with pride and contentment, knowing deep down that they have made a difference. It's the best of American culture, celebrating our own thankfulness by giving the less fortunate something to be thankful for.
Next Friday, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities across the United States will be understaffed, undersupplied, and underfunded, with staff working tirelessly and selflessly to meet their constituents' basic needs. People will go hungry, uncared for, and without a roof over their heads. And the volunteers on Thanksgiving Day will be filled with pride and contentment, knowing deep down that they made a difference.
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I'm looking forward to the next six weeks, the holiday season between now and the start of the new year. I'm a Jew, and an atheist at that, but the Christmas season has a special meaning for me. (Don't even get me started on Hannukah – it's a second-rate holiday attempting desperately to be Christmas, a pleasant enough Jewish concept dressed up in Christian garb.) Despite the consumerism and mall crowds, as well as the annual vaguely anti-Semitic war on “Happy Holidays,” I believe the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season brings out the best in people.
But I believe it also leads us astray. In fact, I believe it is all too easy to get caught up in the season's good feelings that we lose sight of the point: giving is not about good feelings! Our charity's seasonal nature should be a source of shame, not pride. I'm not talking about donating money here – that's a wonderful thing to do, but it's on a completely different level. I'm talking about genuine, person-to-person giving, about truly reaching out and assisting our fellow humans, about enriching the lives of others without worrying about enriching our own.
Give generously this holiday season. Volunteer, put toys in Toys for Tots bins, and put money in the Salvation Army Santa's kettle. However, keep the following points in mind:
1. People require your assistance all year
I wrote a post here two years ago suggesting that your children choose items from their old toys to give to less fortunate children who will not have anything for Christmas.
It turns out that the toy drives organized by your local organizations are quite successful. The month of December. When May rolls around, however, shelters have little to offer. Sick children in hospitals, children in battered women's shelters who have fled their homes in the middle of the night, and others might appreciate a toy or two, but no one donates in the middle of the year – and most non-profits can't afford to store their December bounty all year.
The same is true for other types of volunteering – there are homeless, disabled, ill, poor, and otherwise hurting people who require assistance all year. Perhaps your season of giving could be Labor Day, Memorial Day, Arbor Day, May Day, or some other random day when your assistance is desperately needed.
2. Charity recipients are people with feelings, worth, and dignity
I worked as the assistant manager of a thrift store in San Diego during college. One of my responsibilities was to accept donations at the back of the store. I can't tell you how many times people have pulled up, opened their trunks, and proceeded to empty their trunks into our donation bins. Torn clothes, oily rags, half-bottles of motor oil, torn magazines, and other garbage were common “donations” that we couldn't use or even accept – they had to go straight into the dumpster. But here's the thing: if I objected that I couldn't accept their donations (seriously, a lot of that stuff is actually considered toxic waste under the law and had no business being on the premises! ), they'd say I was crazy. I was chastised – these people, after all, had given these wondrous gifts out of the goodness of their hearts, and who was I to say that the poor were too good for their gifts?
This is backhanded charity; it's the equivalent of stabbing someone and expecting them to thank you for the knife. Poor people don't need the scraps of your life, whether they're material or in the form of your time, emotion, and advice. Being poor means lacking resources, not lacking humanity – if you can't connect with the people you want to help as people, then no one benefits from your ostensibly charitable efforts.
3. Consider the gift of independence
Take note of Sophie's advice above about giving gift cards and giving poor people the dignity to buy what they need. Autonomy is one of the most scarce resources for impoverished people. The most difficult aspect of poverty is how it restricts you – often in ways that exacerbate poverty, such as how stores in poor neighborhoods frequently charge higher prices than stores in better-off neighborhoods, because the poor frequently lack the transportation options to make meaningful choices about where they shop.
Consider how you volunteer or give charity – is there a way you could improve people's ability to make their own choices, follow their own paths, and develop their own abilities? If not, you might want to consider a different type of assistance.
4. Only link
Remember that charity is about helping people, not solving problems. You may have a lot of theories about why people are in the situation they are in, and you may believe you know what is best for them even if they don't. But, to be honest, you don't. If you're in a position to assist, you probably have no idea what the people you're assisting are going through. Even if you were once in their shoes, what worked for you may not work for others – don't underestimate the importance of luck and circumstance.
Too often, people in positions of power distance themselves from the people they wish to assist. And it's no surprise: for the once-a-year volunteer, there's little time to get to know anyone, let alone truly understand their lives. Make a long-term commitment and immerse yourself in the lives of the people for whom your charity is intended. Get to know people in person, as friends, colleagues, and equals.
5. I'll forget about you
Last but not least, remember that it is not about you. Yes, it feels good to give, and there's no reason to feel guilty about it, but don't do it just to feel good, or to earn points toward a merit badge or college credit, or because it's part of your organization's charter, or for any other reason that charity benefits you. Do it because you have to, because being a giver is the right thing to do.
Giving is not just a mitzvah (the fulfillment of a Biblical commandment in the Jewish faith) or a Good Work for Muslims; it is one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the central defining features of Muslim identity. It's not just something Muslims do; it's who they are.
That is something we can all learn from. Find a way to give not only your wealth – and don't let a lack of wealth prevent you from giving – but also your talents, skills, knowledge, and self. Make giving a part of who you are, rather than just something you do.
And this year, instead of giving during the holiday season and then returning to your “normal life” when you put away the tree and lights, let the holidays serve as a springboard to a life of year-round giving.
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