Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Guilt and Giving

I shouldn't have done it. Given, that is. It all started with guilt: I had received, on a handful of occasions, a few "free" mail return address self-stick labels. They come with the hope that in return, I would donate to their cause. I don't even remember what the cause was fighting... Heart disease? Children's diabetes? Breast cancer? I dunno, but I felt bad that I had used these labels before without giving back, so I decided that okay, fine, I'd donate back to one of these causes - just one time - to make up for it. That was a mistake.

Now they won't leave me alone. I am being inundated with more and more of these things. Labels with flowers, American flags and eagles, Olympic symbols, hearts, Ziggy, aquatic scenes, Christmas ornaments, butterflies, etc. "Ding ding ding! We have a winner!" Or probably more like, "We have a sucker! This guy will pay for this type of thing." Now that I'm on the sucker list, how do I get off? There is no "opt-out". I have to just not give anymore, for some indeterminate period of time, until they get the hint. Meanwhile, they are spending more money printing and mailing these things to me - some even with a nickel attached - in hopes that I will continue to give. I feel even more guilty, because the amount I originally gave by no means covers their new expenses. But the positive feeling I first had when I gave is gone. I no longer want to give - at least not to return address label pushers! The experience has been tainted, and I am even a tad bit resentful. Surely this is not what they had hoped for.

Of course this is not the only way groups pull on our heartstrings to get us to give. Everyone has experienced those late-night television ads with the starving children, stomachs bloated and flies in their eyes in some third-world country. Or those cute little helpless puppies in the animal shelter, who have been abused and desperately need your help. You have to be a depraved individual if you don't feel sorry for these less-fortunates, right? Or maybe just desensitized by mass media and over-exposure to organizations - both commercial and charitable - who try to win your hard-earned money? After a while, they all blend together into a blurred noise, "Give, spend, spend, give." But let's skip the topic of consumerism for now; that can be left for a future post...

Now, I'm not implying that many (if not most) of these organizations are not justified in their approaches: they've found something - guilt - that works for very worthy causes, and sometimes the end does justify the means. What I'm wondering is, "Why do people give?" Is it ever a truly selfless act? One could argue that no gift is given without an expectation of something in return. That something need not be physical: it can be gratification, fulfillment, pride, or more. No one else has to know that you gave, but you know, and that gives you some sort of satisfaction. I'm not saying that's bad; I'm just saying that it's hard for me to think of a time I've given without getting something back, even if nothing was asked for or expected in return.

Why do people not give? Often greed, sometimes mistrust (of how their gift will be used or even accepted), sometimes ignorance. Logistically, it would be impossible to give to every cause - much less to every person - so we have to be judicious on how much we can give, and picky about which causes we give to. Lots of people will choose a cause based on personal experience or affiliation. For example, if you have a relative who has battled cancer, you might be more inclined to give to a related charity because you have seen how difficult it is and appreciated when people have helped. Another example, right in my own house, is my eleven year-old son, who has been pouring through books on the environment and feels strongly that it is what he wants to dedicate his efforts toward.

Finally, let's take this one step further. This post has primarily considered the topic of giving money, mostly to charities. However, my musings can be extended to any type of giving, like in interpersonal relationships. When you "give your heart" or "give your time" or "give your ear" to someone, is it likewise ever truly selfless? I believe it comes down to your intent and motivation. If your mind and heart are truly focused on benefiting that other person, then it's okay to feel good about it, to receive a kind of fulfillment in return. To be happy. The more and more I think about it, even as I type these words, I think we shouldn't let guilt get involved. It's good to have a conscience, but if you focus on the guilt of what would happen if you didn't give, you're missing the point. The focus should be on the positives of what would happen if you did give. Guilt should not be the motivation; benefiting others should be.


  1. DW, I totally identify here--in fact, I have 2 label-pusher envelopes stuck in with my bills on the off-chance I have a few extra dollars to send in. Fortunately both of them are causes I feel strongly about, but I don't want to put a target symbol on my mailbox either.

  2. what's up with the seascape at the beginning? i agree with your blog, but i'm left wondering what the underwater photo has to do with using labels from $desperate orgnization$. does the sea represent guilt? does the anemone represent the human need to reach out and strangle someone? does the rock represent some perverted sexual gratification a company receives from receiving said donation?

    don't leave us hanging. inquiring minds need to know.

  3. Interesting take, Brent. Actually, I was more focusing on the symbiotic relationship of the sea anemone with the clown fish (lower right). Each creature gives to the other, but also gets something back in return.

    BTW, all photographs in this blog came from the family camera (photos often taken by my wife). No ripped-off images here. :) I once thought about explaining my photo choices, but instead decided to (until now) leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide what the photos mean to *them*. Sort of like how I listen to music. Usually I pay no attention to the lyrics, but instead think about the feeling the song gives *me* when I listen. It makes it more of a personal experience. Oooo, there's a thought for another blog entry!