January 26, 2010

Why Give? Charity and Who Gets It in 2010

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Why give? Depending on context and audience, this simple question can get diced into smaller, more interesting ones. It can become a query into others’ motives. Why is that people, in actuality, text “HAITI” to 90999? It can urge us to find the basis for charity. Generally speaking, why ought we give, and not hoard? It can beg the defender of a cause to justify the cause itself. When there is need all around, why should I give here, and not there? To this and not that? Finally, it examines a perceived futility in giving small amounts. After all, what can a few bucks really do?

Answering these several questions in light of the catastrophe in Haiti seems to me a simple enough exercise.

The heart-rending images coming out of that place touch our guilt over the comparative wealth and resilience of our nation in comparison to theirs. The devastation in Haiti provides an object for the compassion that typically lies dormant within us, the noble desire to ease someone else’s suffering.

To be sure, issues of conspicuous giving for social and political gain, paternalistic undertones to the process, and questions of why the world waited to help Haiti until it was too late do arise. But the urgency of need makes these questions seem petty. Who cares if I donate to the Red Cross because of social pressure? Who cares if one head of state only sends aid to impress the others? What difference does it make if I give for the right reasons or the wrong reasons or that ideally the nations of the world would have had a better system in place to make Haiti self-reliant? Just give, stupid! 100 million people giving ten dollars each goes a long way in saving lives and rebuilding a country. We can worry about all of this stuff after the rubble is cleared, the wounds are stitched, the meals cooked, and the water delivered.

So, Haiti seems like an easy one. The philosophical exercise of assigning praise and blame and judgment in light of the ‘why give?’ question seems rather trivial when lives are at stake. Why give? Well, that’s just what you do. Stop asking so many questions, send your text, and get to work.

Turning my thoughts to Cornell and my position on the 2010 Senior Class Campaign Committee, I wonder why it is that seniors generally give to their future alma maters. Why should we, even if it’s only a few dollars? In this case, the collegian impetus to parse and analyze cannot be called trivial by me or anyone else. These are the very skills which Cornell begs us to learn well for four years, and time is not short to ask the tough questions. No one is dying in the streets.

On its face, it seems odd that giving to Cornell is in the same class of action – philanthropy – as giving to Haiti. Yet there are important ways in which they resemble one another. A gift can be an expression of solidarity, of unity with the people that make up an institution. The stories, whether of rescue from a collapsed building or triumph in education out of disadvantage, can spur us on to contribute.

A gift to Cornell also meets a need that will otherwise go unmet. Plain and simple, there are programs and services here that will disappear if the money doesn’t come in. While the needs of an Ivy League university may read more like wants, or even luxuries (a synchrotron? Really?), these are the luxuries we enjoy and that cause us to flourish. It would appear backward to want or use for oneself a scholarship that was not worth continuing for the next batch of students. And while there are so many life-saving charities around the world worthy of our time and money, think for a moment of how many of them you knew about before you arrived in Ithaca. And after?

The opening of my mind to the needs and suffering of the world has been Cornell’s gift to me. How could I not, then, express a desire to provide future students with the same outlook through a small donation to Cornell.

For Christmas, a friend and Cornell-lover gave me a framed copy of the Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Ithaka.” Because of it, I now consider the choice between competing charities a false one. I think no one is too poor to give (or at least not anyone who has had lunch at Green Café), and that to complain about the poverty Cornell has imposed upon us through student loans and expensive books is to misunderstand our experience here almost completely. In Cavafy’s words, here’s why:

“Have Ithaka always in your mind.

Your arrival there is what you are destined for.

But don’t in the least hurry the journey.

Better it last for years,

so that when you reach the island you are old,

rich with all you have gained on the way,

not expecting Ithaka to give you wealth.

Ithaka gave you a splendid journey.

Without her you would not have set out.

She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka hasn’t deceived you.

So wise you have become, of such experience,

that already you’ll have understood,

what these Ithakas mean.” — Constantine Cavafy

Andrew Daines is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at adaines@cornellsun.com. The Right Stuff appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Andrew Daines