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When is the properest time to give?

Your Humble Blogger was listening to NPR this morning, driving around taking people places, when Morning Edition finished up with a series of stories about the current situation in Haiti, culminating in a rather wonderful story about a fellow there who owns a restaurant which somehow made it through the earthquake with a fully working kitchen. And a pantry and fridge and all full of ingredients, and nobody around who was going to buy his food. So he cooked it anyway, rather than let it go bad, and gave the finished meals away. And then other restaurateurs started coming over with their food, because their kitchens were fucked, and then, well, you know. Soup kitchen. Rather a sweet story, really. And they followed it up with a quick if you want to contribute, NPR has some links on-line kind of thing.

And then cut back to the local station’s pledge break.

Which was, you know, awkward for a minute or two. Because, let’s face it, NPR is a terrific cause and all, but they do broadcasting and not feeding the hungry. Now, it’s true that if we didn’t have the broadcasting, we wouldn’t know about the hungry, and wouldn’t donate to that. And it’s possible to give to both! Still, no denying it sounded a bit tacky.

Which tackiness made me finally decide to come out and say it: I not posting links to Haiti charities because I think the habit of giving donations in the wake of disasters is a human failing and I feel bad encouraging it. But before you rush forward through the Intertubes and beat upon me with your fisticuffs and open palms, let me explain.

I am in favor of donating to charities. I don’t do enough of it, myself, partially because I am lazy and greedy, and partially because our household has been arranged at a kind of precarious point, financially, and I am unwilling to make the kinds of changes that would give us substantially more disposable income. I mention this because I am very aware that (a) I am in no position to preach out of personal ethos which does make a difference persuasively, and (2) I don’t want GRs to think that I am criticizing them or want them to change their ways. That’s not my point at all. Have you given to one of the Haiti charities? Terrific. Good on you. Seriously. People could use your help. Go to it.

From a logos perspective, though, it seems utterly obvious that it would be better if people, in general, looked at their household budgets on, say, a quarterly basis, and tithed or otherwise contributed to their charities of choice based not on the need but on their ability. Because, you know, there is always going to be need. And if you have money, now, to give to food aid to Haiti, logically you probably had money six months ago to give to those same charities, which would have helped them become ready to help quickly after disaster strikes, rather than having to do a million man-hours of accounting work in the wake of an earthquake or flood. And if you did not have the money when you sat down to look at your household budget, you probably don’t really have the money now: we don’t do our best decision-making when babies need to be rescued from rubble.

Except it turns out we do make our best decisions when babies need to be rescued from rubble. We don’t look at our budgets, most of us, decide how much we can afford, and give just a little more than that. We know that preparedness is all, but we don’t give money for preparedness. We all know that the money is more useful before the earthquake, and we all know that there will be another earthquake or a flood or a fire or a famine and that Doctors without Borders and the UN World Food Programme and Mazon and all the rest will be raising money after it happens. And we will wait and give them money after it happens. Because we are humans. It is kairos, the right time and circumstances for persuasion, and more powerful, in a lot of ways, than ethos, and much more than logos.

And, you know, it’s not like I really would be any happier if people were coolly calculating their budgets, and then when the earthquake hits, saying they gave at the office. What I really want, actually, is for people to get into the habit of giving without the spark of a disaster. In the absence of habit, I’m OK with taxation. But habit would be better.

I heard a sermon once (I think it was Jeffrey Summit) in which the speaker talked about trying to inculcate the habit of donating to a food charity every time he had a really good meal. That the celebration of the meal, the enjoyment of it, would not feel complete unless the checkbook came out. The waiter gets twenty percent, the charity gets twenty percent.

I’m just saying. If the disaster in Haiti makes you want to help, and you have some money to give, give it. But there will be another one somewhere next year, or later this year even. And wouldn’t you rather give on a happy occasion—a good meal, a good movie, an Opening Night, the end of the semester, a season premiere, a Super Bowl win? And then next time, when you are faced with the unavoidable pictures of the horrors, you can think Oh, right, MSF, I gave to them every time somebody I knew had a baby, this year there was Kaia and Irene and little Theo, that was seventy-five bucks. Those kids are so cute! and then you are thinking about cute babies, and happiness is everywhere.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


Actually, I have entirely avoided pictures of the horrors. How?

Step One: Don't watch television. Step Two: Don't read newspapers. Step Three: Listen to news radio. Step Four: Take Internet news in aggregators that preview the story without showing the pictures.

I have no idea what Port-Au-Prince looks like, although come to think of it, I did see one picture of a somewhat-toppled dome on what I believe to be the Presidential palace. I forget where I saw it. Maybe the front page of some newspaper. Seems like it was printed, rather than electronic.

None of this is interesting, of course, but it is both true and apparently peculiar.


PS I'm good with my level and style of charitable giving, thanks for asking.

For any reader who finds tax breaks a helpful motivation, donations to eligible charities until February 28 can be deducted on your 2009 taxes if you want. And text message donations can be documented for the IRS with a sufficiently itemized phone bill, rather than needing a formal receipt from the charity.

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