Pick a cause: helping those with disabilities, donating to the arts, housing the homeless, supporting the addicted, stopping abuse, raising awareness about animal welfare, fighting inequality, battling the stigma against mental illness, and countless others. Ribbons everywhere, charities vying for attention, people suffering from something on every road in every place. Even if we want to, we can’t support them all.
The challenge is knowing which causes to support. Sure, individual values and passions steer us. Maybe we think, because animals can’t communicate like we do, that we should advocate harder for them than human beings. Or maybe we think animals aren’t as much of a priority as human beings. That decision is personal, and for those who dedicate their lives to helping others, agonizing. Pair this with a healthy skepticism regarding charities and whether or not the money and time we donate is actually making a difference, and settling into a cause becomes nigh impossible.
Back when I still was a member of a political party, I volunteered for an organization and hated it because it seemed pointless and phony. Because I hadn’t found a charity I enjoyed volunteering for, I stayed away from it. I was rarely in a position to donate money, and, after hearing horror stories about how federal aid for some African countries was simply funding the cruel oppressors who caused strife, I kept my funds close. For years, I’ve neither donated nor volunteered. Helping others is important to me, so I comforted myself by accepting that my job as an educator was enough. In the back of my head, it never was.
After reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, a book that took me months to finish because it was emotionally draining, I started to, once again, feel a compulsion to give or help. Kidder’s book details the dire state of health care in Haiti and how Dr. Paul Farmer struggled to bring basic medical care to the impoverished country. The book was published seven years before the earthquake that demolished major portions of the already weak country. I read the book shortly after the earthquake because I had to for work. I kept thinking, if it was that bad before the earthquake, what was life like after? Unexpectedly, it altered my understanding of what need and charity truly mean.
Two Christmases ago, I followed the path of my in-laws (who often donate and volunteer), and instead of gifts for myself, I put Life Straws on my Christmas list. It was the first time I had ever requested something not for myself. My mother-in-law put cut up straws from Culver’s into gift-card sized boxes and wrapped them. I still remember feeling ambivalent about opening gifts that weren’t for me for Christmas. Beyond my youngest child spoiled nature, I was happy something useful had been given to someone else, but I still hadn’t shaken my feelings about the impacts of charity. Would my money actually go toward helping a person have access to clean drinking water? Would the straws actually work? Would they have enough straws? There were so many questions that I became overwhelmed and couldn’t cope. I attempted to shove it out of my head.
Unfortunately, my brain won’t let things go. Since then, I’ve been wondering why I chose Life Straws. What was it about that particular product that made me want to donate? I’ve spent two years formulating this answer. This is the first time I’ve tried to explain it in writing.
I am and always will be an outspoken advocate for gay rights and mental health. However, I’ve always felt I serve both of those causes best with my words. It isn’t to say these causes are undeserving of my cash. But I choose to donate to them with my time. More so, I don’t like donating money to these causes (for now) because most of my energies are focused on gay rights and mental health awareness in the United States, and it seems my money is better spent in places where cell phones, Starbucks, and Ugg boots aren’t commonplace.
Let me put this a less judgmental way. At the end of February, I had a kidney stone. The recommended way to pass a kidney stone is to drink more water than you think possible. In other words, I was to drink water in excess. I got sick of water. Yet, to some, clean water is a luxury. This does not compute in my brain. Here I am with water bottles, ice, cups filled with water several times a day, and so many people just want a few sips. It boggles my mind that I was told by a doctor to drink water to excess, yet someone across the globe couldn’t do that if they walked all day to find clean water.
Of course, I want to help disabled children, but most (not all) in the United States have homes and medical care. Of course, I want to support the arts. What I’m doing right now in this blog–my entire life’s purpose and passion of writing–is dependent upon support for the arts. But I’m sitting in a middle-class home with my legs on a Swedish ottoman and a laptop next to an iPhone. The vast majority of Americans are financially OK. Our poor is not the same as Haiti’s poor.
To my right, a water bottle sits two-thirds full of water I got from a water fountain. I could walk into my kitchen, never leave the comfort of my baggy pants and knitted sweater and fuzzy socks . . . never be out from under my roof . . . and get clean drinking water from my sink and my fridge. I could walk to any house around me and ask for a cup of clean drinking water, and I would get it. As my husband and I sat at dinner last night, we each had a glass of ice water, and they were refilled several times without request or a need for it.
And someone across the planet . . . on the same planet . . . may have to travel an entire day just for clean drinking water.
Late last year, I started using smile.amazon.com and selected charity: water as my choice. Yesterday, I saw Nathan Fillion is, once again, asking everyone to donate to charity: water for his birthday. I told my husband I wanted to give to that cause. Today, my husband donated in both our names. (Thank you, love.)
My brain cannot comprehend how I can feasibly give money to anything other than helping people who lack the one basic necessity. The arts, animal welfare, and other causes, while important, seem secondary to me when people don’t have the one thing the body needs to survive. Water, more than anything else, matters.