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Your Money Where Your Mouth Is...

new internationalist
issue 160 - June 1986

Your money where
your mouth is
Love it or loathe it, Band Aid has put giving back in fashion.
Yet it's easy to sink into 'compassion fatigue'. However, Enver Carim
thinks we'll be the losers if we don't continue to dig deeply
into our own pockets. Here he explains why.

THE Zulu custom of accepting a gift, however small, with cupped palms is a way of acknowledging the giver's generosity: it is so great that both hands are needed to receive it. The gesture is a sign of reverence, too, a recognition by the recipient that here is a person in whose heart the spirit of compassion is still alive. So the gift, in addition to its practical usefulness, highlights the common humanity of the parties concerned.

Wordlessly, and therefore transcending linguistic and cultural barriers, the gift expresses a sentiment of this kind: strangers though we may be, I bring an awareness of your inner life, which is not all that different from mine. Whether the gift is a bowl of soup to a hungry child, a bunch of flowers on someone's birthday, or a telescope through which a king may study the stars, it has power that is best described as psychic.

The soup not only gives nourishment; it also restores in some degree the child's sense of her value to others as a person. Why else would they bother to bring the soup? The flowers not only fill a room with colour and fragrance; they also signify respect, love, admiration. As well as making the heavenly bodies visible, the telescope shows that a monarch is no different from other people in having a thirst for knowledge and understanding.

Clearly, the act of giving has deeper dimensions than the transfer of goods from A to B. It is psychologically potent. And in societies such as those of Europe and North America, where the accumulation of goods has become an end in itself and the value of a person is measured by the quantity and variety of things they possess, giving has a liberating role to play. It is at the same time a way of breaking free from the clutches of selfishness and getting out from under the pile of products obscuring human identity. It is a means whereby people can rescue themselves from the process that is stripping them of emotions and feelings and transforming them into objects.

This process is well advanced. A wide range of government and private institutions deem it quite normal to regard people only as objects of advertising, as target markets, as nothing more than consumers.

In the same way that an industrial robot is controlled by a sequence of movements etched into a silicon chip, people's latitude is increasingly defined and delimited by the wares of the marketplace. You have been successful? Uncork a bottle of champagne and light up a cigar. You are lonely and want to meet friends? Join, for a fee, one of many dating organisations. You prefer camping? Without a waterproof tent, sleeping bags and portable gas-stove you really won't be in the countryside at all. You are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ? Stocks of whisky, brandy, beer, wine and mountains of food are obligatory. You are programmed to be embarrassed if you don't have adequate supplies.

It's not surprising that in a culture where nearly all the action options have been pre-empted by products, where social activity has more or less dissolved into the purchase of goods and services, people have an uneasy sense of being out of touch with reality. Despite the endless stream of products, they are still dissatisfied, restless, constantly in search of their identity. 'I'm trying to find myself, 'I want to express myself, they say, conveying a peculiarly Western sense of loss.

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  • Giving can be seen as either futile self-sacrifice or as a means of changing the world: it can be accused of failing to alter the economic system that produces poverty, or it can be promoted as a way of starting to give power to the poor.
  • Giving can be an expression of compassion, empathy and generosity - a sign that the donor is not wholly self-centred. But giving can also be motivated by another form of self-centredness: guilt.
  • Giving can be done in the belief that it changes the donor: making them feel part of a world community in which their quality of life is linked to that of their neighbour.
  • It is also possible to give without giving money: by fighting for social justice through political campaigns, voluntary work, counselling or being hospitable

They have difficulty experiencing what they truly feel because there are so many distractions. The all-encompassing advertising pounds their faculties ceaselessly, blitzing them with reasons why they should buy more, acquire more, be seen to possess more. Small wonder their sensations are distorted. Not surprising there's a certain numbness about their perceptions. They've been anaesthetized by greed. The next, irreversible, stage is lobotomy by abundance.

The only sure way to escape such a ghastly fate, many are finding, is to make contact again with their own impulses. They have to rediscover human emotions. Against the grain of the commercial ethos, they have begun to acknowledge the needs of the poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America and to act on their feelings of compassion and generosity.

This deliberate decision to give freely, not only money but also valuable time and energy marks a change in moral consciousness. Increasing numbers of Europeans, North Americans and well-to-do families in the developing countries are recognizing that the gap between their lifestyle and the squalor of the poverty-stricken millions is not an unchangeable fact of life. The gap can be narrowed. Individuals do have the power to make things better.

By contributing towards the price of just one tractor or one water-pump, for example, a person has a direct impact on the quality mentally alert, better able to improve their own lives.

People have been giving, however, not only because they've begun to understand the gaps between the rich and the poor, but also because they are realizing that giving is doing. Giving is a form of real action. Giving achieves practical results. Instead of just watching the poor on television, or reading about them in newspapers and magazines, and perhaps feeling bad about not being able to help in some way, people have discovered that giving is the long arm of love. It reaches all continents. It transforms thoughts and feelings into action.

The experience of giving, they say, has been vivifying. It has put them in touch with authentic reality. It has reminded them of what it feels like really to be alive, to use their own initiative, to be genuinely excited. The feedback from helping a village become self-sufficient even in just one crop; from trying to purify sources of water, from taking a mobile clinic into the bush to cool fevered bodies; from getting an elementary school started - it is something beyond compare and on a quite different plane from trekking to the supermarket and back in bloated suburbia.

'The more you value possessions over people,' according to one conclusion, 'the less like a person you yourself become and the more inhuman your attitudes and actions'. This has been amply demonstrated in different parts of the world by the grasping lifestyle and excesses of tyrants such as Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos of the Philippines, Baby Doc Duvalier of Haiti, and the late, unlamented Shah of Iran. Whereas giving, whether it be money, equipment or skills, deepens your humanity because the well-being of others is a vital dimension of your own piece of mind.

Enver Carim is a psychologist and author of several books, the latest of which is AIDS: the deadly epidemic (Victor Gollanz, 1986).

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New Internationalist issue 160 magazine cover This article is from the June 1986 issue of New Internationalist.
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