Mr. Spock might find himself once again baffled by our odd folkways if he was exposed to those surrounding charity. He would probably agree that it is “logical” to seek cures for diseases, or for those with great resources to help those without. But there’s nothing logical about how we accomplish otherwise noble ends.
I was forced to confront some of the oddities this weekend when 3,500 people ran in circles around my neighborhood in the dark. Many were decorated with twinkling lights or sported seasonal outfits including Santa hats and candy-cane knee socks. The point of all this activity was to raise money for the local food bank. Good cause, but what’s it got to do with running — or walking or pole-vaulting? Why not just give the money?
But that’s not the way we roll. Unless there’s a walk or a run or a silent auction or a cocktail party or a celebrity performance or gala with dining and dancing, we seem less likely to give. Even though the overhead for mounting all the accompanying folderol reduces the take for the actual charity, sometimes dramatically. Spock wouldn’t have approved. And Jesus was kind of tough on charity for show. “When you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men.”
Most of us, alas, are not quite up to the austere standards of either of these fellows. People don’t just give their money or time or canned goods because it is good, sensible or useful to do so. They have to be cajoled or jollied or bribed or pressured or amused or entertained or otherwise moved to write the check. We need our egos stroked, or our name in the paper, or the admiration of our peers, or a certificate of merit, or a gold star, as in Kindergarten. We are emotive not logical creatures as well as being herd animals. If something feels good or if everyone else is doing it, we are a lot more likely to join in. It feels good to fit in, and bad to be the lonely odd man out.
Maybe the same “logic” is behind charity as that expressed by Alvy Singer in the final scene of “Annie Hall.” “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, but I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.”
So around and around went the food bank runners amid neighborhood parties to cheer them on, roadside fire pits, stages with bands playing holiday tunes. Each runner had to pay to participate in the fun of the run, so they were, in effect, bribing themselves with a good deed to get some exercise — and to gather the eggs of good feeling. Well, whatever works, right?
Since this is the season of giving, and even people who are adamantinely Scrooge-like for most of the year are vulnerable for a few weeks, every good cause under the sun is out in force. Not just the Salvation Army bell-ringers on every corner and my local runners, but fundraisers for every known malady and cause. My mailbox overflows with far more solicitations than Christmas Cards or bills or packages from Amazon.
People want my help with refugees, threats to land, sea and air, orphaned pets and humans, wounded warriors, the elderly, children, schools I once attended, theaters, symphonies and operas I have never attended, causes I gave to in the past, and causes I didn’t even know existed.
You’d think some of these causes would figure out that, given the surfeit of solicitations at the end of the year, a kind of law of diminishing returns would set in. Surely people are sooner or later tapped out and it would make more sense to save their requests for June. Some have begun to behave like retailers and try to beat every other good cause to the punch by moving their attempt to pluck our heartstrings to October.
But most stick with the traditional fund-raising calendar, probably because it works. Maybe that’s because when the days grow short, the nights long and dark we all need the eggs the most. Or maybe it’s for a reason that is so logical that Mr. Spock would surely approve, even if he had no feeling for the cause of homeless puppies, or public television. December is the last chance to get a charitable deduction for the current calendar year. Thus, cold fiscal logic, feeling good, and doing good all meet around the Christmas tree to sing carols, drink eggnog, and write checks.
Besides, Isaiah might just me right. “If you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday.” I reckon Shakespeare was thinking of that when he had Portia say, “How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” And if a sentiment is good enough for prophets and poets alike, who are we to quibble in world still weary?