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Triptych: 3.

So, hey, the whole point of this blog series is the fact that I came up with ten rules for how I want to go about altruism in my daily life. Without further ado, I give you …

Jennifer Gilbert’s Do-Good Manifesto

1. DO ANY GOOD IN THE FIRST PLACE

The terrifying truth is that I’m making a difference no matter what I do, whether I like it or not. The math is right there: Everything else being equal, my actions amount to 1/7,047,833,249th of human existence, give or take whichever babies are being born right now.

I’m not saying I’m important, or not important, because those semantics become impossibly tangled impossibly quickly. I’m saying that, like it or not, I’m a shareholder. I can’t sell that stock or give it away. It’s mine, and what I do with it will have repercussions that will likely last much, much longer than any project I’m consciously working on.

Except everything isn’t equal, which means that, since I’m one of the lucky people who can go get drinkable water out of the tap whenever I feel like it, much less write a post on the Internet about it, I have even more stock, even more power. You know those CEOs we don’t understand, the ones who give themselves huge bonuses while their workers struggle to get by? That’s me, if I don’t make any effort at all to pour some of my wealth back into the human enterprise.

I know it doesn’t feel like wealth, but it is. I do think that would be embarrassingly obvious if all seven billion of us were hanging out at the same party.

(”Gee, I hope I don’t run out of toilet paper!” I’d joke, as the hostess. “Wow, you have toilet paper?” almost half of them would say. Aaaawkward!)

Basically, what I am approaching here is the terrifying thought that I cannot decide not to affect other people. I can only decide how to affect them. There is no such thing as just keeping to myself and minding my own business, because there is no such thing as my own business.

Charles Whelan said it best:

“I know that I’m supposed to tell you to aspire to great things. But I’m going to lower the bar here: Just don’t use your prodigious talents to mess things up. Too many smart people are doing that already. And if you really want to cause social mayhem, it helps to have an Ivy League degree. You are smart and motivated and creative. Everyone will tell you that you can change the world. They are right, but remember that “changing the world” also can include things like skirting financial regulations and selling unhealthy foods to increasingly obese children. I am not asking you to cure cancer. I am just asking you not to spread it.”

I’ll be honest: just climbing out of the red on that balance sheet, and keeping myself there, is going to require enormous changes in my career and lifestyle.

2. DO GOOD NOW

I don’t care how poor I am or how helpless I feel. I can still do good right now. I can give my seat away on the train, or let a rushed person go in front of me in line. I can offer someone a kind word. I can do good right now.

The greatest fallacy I have battled in my life as an anxious person is the idea that, in my continuing quest for a decent savings account and reasonable health care and at least ONE pair of jeans that isn’t fraying in the crotch, I’m not ready to help anyone. I can’t; I don’t have enough money in the bank to make me feel safe. I can’t; I haven’t paid off every last one of my debts. I can’t; I haven’t achieved immortality yet, and until I do, I’m going to need everything I have and more, to keep pushing toward that goal of bulletproof security.

Immortality will never arrive. Even rich people rarely hit some magical threshold where they push themselves away from the table, say “MORE money? Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly!” and give the rest to the poor.

We’re all freaked out. We’re all vulnerable to terrifying things like bank-breaking cancers and car accidents and bad luck. We all want to hoard anything we can to protect ourselves while buying stuff that makes our struggle easier along the way. But unless I’m straight-up skipping meals, I’m probably on the privileged side of the fence and have the resources to offer something to someone else, even if it’s just a kind word.

I had to reach a point where I was ready to acknowledge that I am never going to be ready.

“No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”
– Edmund Burke

3. DO GOOD ANYWAY

Doing good things hurts. Volunteering at a hospice hurts. Contemplating the horrors of the foster-care system hurts. It’s uncomfortable, to the point of feeling nearly blasphemous, to be present for someone else’s profound suffering.

I know a woman, a photographer, who volunteers at the local hospital, photographing the dead newborns of devastated parents who will have no other photographs of their child. She doesn’t do this because it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. She does it because she wants to make a difference, a process that is so rarely pretty or comfortable.

It hurts. It’s hard. It involves sacrifice. It’s daunting and overwhelming. Do it anyway. I can’t say I’ve ever done something good and then walked away full of regret. Have you?

4. DO GOOD INTRINSICALLY

We’ve all done it: we go about our daily lives, and then hastily tack on a $25 Kiva loan now and again so we can sleep at night. Such actions are more often an aberration from our everyday lives than a natural, integrated component.

I personally balk at signing up for regular, recurring volunteer duty, because what if I later decide that I don’t WANT to cheer up the elderly every Thursday? What if my life changes and I can’t do it any longer or become so tired and overburdened that I openly resent Ethel and her clingy, geriatric cronies?

I’ll have to quit, which will make me look like a terrible person. It’s vastly preferable to do nothing. That way, no one gets hurt. Well, except the desperately lonely elderly, but they won’t know to point those gnarled little fingers at me for it, which is all that matters.

I need to sign up for a regular gig. As with so many healthy lifestyle choices, I need to design a regimen that’s sustainable, one with measurable success and relatively consistent effort.

5. DO GOOD OUT LOUD

Doing good cannot become culturally commonplace if we all keep our altruism modestly hidden. I know it can feel like bragging to speak of my own deeds aloud. Why is it more acceptable to show off my new shoes than to show off my charitable acts? No one is saying I should flaunt it (”Just helped an African orphan! In your FACE! BOOMSHAKALAKALAKA!”), but there’s no harm in sharing my strategies or inviting others to join me in my efforts.

6. THANK OTHERS FOR DOING GOOD

I doubt someone else’s altruism was designed to make me look bad. Even if they fed the hungry specifically to spite me, they still fed the hungry. I should probably avoid letting my ego launch into diatribes about how they must just think they’re soooo great. Hey, they just fed the hungry; maybe they ARE so great. Maybe they really are better than I am. I should consider rising to the occasion, rather than resenting their positive actions because my self-esteem is too fragile to graciously tolerate the achievements of others.

“People are starving” is a neutral, factual statement. It’s true; people really are starving. But it’s hard for me to read that sentence as anything but a heavy-handed accusation.

If the expression of such realities makes you feel like rolling your eyes or making a joke, you’re not alone. But acting on that defensiveness makes life awkward for people who are trying to do positive things. Keep it to yourself.

7. DO GOOD WITHOUT SHAME

Even recounting some of the good things I’ve done in this post makes me feel weird. But unless I’m being condescending or superior about it, there’s no reason for anyone to ever make me feel bad about caring, or about helping people and talking about it. Don’t let anyone shame you for your desire to make the world better, or make you feel as if you’re being naive.

Provided you’ve taken care not to be obnoxious, anyone who feels threatened by what you’re doing has some issues to work out. Ignore them, and come tell me about the good stuff you did. I’d love to hear about it.

8. DO GOOD PERSONALLY, AT LEAST ONCE IN A WHILE

I know it’s hard to talk to strangers, especially if you’re the sort of anxious person who would have any interest in improving the world to begin with. If you’re anything like me, you’d rather improve the world without having to actually deal with anyone, perhaps from some sort of secret volcanic lair.

Don’t feel bad about your awkward self. Social confidence is much more often found in the kind of smooth-talking narcissists who are unlikely to schmooze with anyone beneath them on the social ladder, and I am not that narcissist (I’m the other kind, the rigorously self-doubting and hairshirt-wearing kind), so it makes sense that I’d rather quietly donate $50 to a shelter than make jovial small talk with a homeless person.

Homeless people aren’t like me. A lot of them sleep on concrete and wear weird things and smell terrible. Some of them shout loud nonsense in people’s faces or have visibly wet their pants. I could not be less enthused about physically getting close enough to someone like that to hand them anything I own. If I hand a homeless guy a granola bar, he might accept it. Or he might get angry at my impudence. Or he might make some primal noise and jam that protein bar right into my eye socket — I’m pretty sure I saw something about that trend on the news once.

You never can tell, is what I’m saying. Once, while I waited for a cab, a homeless man punted an open two-liter of soda at me, dousing me with sugary liquid for absolutely no reason I can think of. People can be unpredictable, and that makes me nervous.

That said, financial transactions are great, but relatively clinical. They don’t necessarily make people feel like people or create fulfilling memories for anyone. Homeless people need food and shelter, sure, but they probably also really enjoy feeling visible and personally acknowledged. I have had nightmares in which no one could see or hear me. Some people’s lives resemble that nightmare, and I contribute to it because I feel uncomfortable or even possibly endangered doing anything else.

Some of the most memorable, powerful kindnesses happen at the personal level.

I once managed to overcome my bashful floor-staring in order to pay a man’s grocery tab. He had been negotiating with the cashier for several minutes, and he was clearly very embarrassed and apologetic. He asked her to try putting $5 on this card, $6 on that card. I stole a glance at his total. It was only $17, and standing there listening to him was becoming more painful than the prospect of putting myself out there.

So I offered to pay, awkwardly, and he accepted with astonishment and profuse thanks that made me feel even weirder. I walked out of the store and sat in my nice car and wasn’t sure exactly what to make of what had just transpired. These things are not easy to do, even when they should be.

Months later, we defied all kinds of crazy odds by running into one another on the sidewalk in a completely different place. I thought he looked familiar, but the crazy thing is, he recognized me immediately as the stranger he had spoken to for all of 60 awkward seconds in a grocery store late at night.

“HEY!” he said, delight spreading across his features.

“Hey!” I returned, startled. “… uh, how are you?”

“Better,” he said, and the pride in his voice has stuck with me in a way that no impersonal donation ever will.

Months later, I would contemplate the conveyor belt while avoiding eye contact with a small child whose mother was standing there arguing with the cashier about whether her food stamps included certain canned food. I didn’t do anything that time, in broad daylight, with more people watching. My trepidation was not entirely financial, not by a long shot. Words stick in our throats for strange reasons, stupid reasons.

There’s the other aspect of this, which is that sometimes, people need help in real time. They don’t need some organization to come along and do something for them — they need help, right now, in this moment, because they are about to faint on the train or because their toddler has wrested himself from their grasp and is running full-tilt toward the Down escalator. They need me to be attentive to their existence, to be someone who considers myself responsible for my fellow mall patrons.

Not that long ago, while running to catch a flight, I saw something tumble to the floor out of the corner of my eye. Someone had dropped something, and maybe they realized it or maybe they didn’t, but this was one of the hundreds of instances in my everyday life that offer me an opportunity to choose to care. I’ve missed plenty of those opportunities, but this time, for whatever reason, I did turn around, and it was a stuffed animal on the floor, and a woman holding a child was scurrying onward in oblivion.

I picked it up and caught up with her, and the look on her face when I got her attention told me what I had already guessed: only the most important stuffed animal would be loose in an airport to begin with.

“I figured he might be somebody’s baby,” I said.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “You really have no idea.”

Some of the most important things you could ever do might require you to keep your eyes open, take it upon yourself to be cognizant of what’s going on, and act.

9. DO GOOD FOR LOVED ONES

I have this issue where I’m so distracted by my need to be virtuous toward the desperate masses that I miss obvious opportunities to be a good friend, good girlfriend, good daughter, good sister.

Them: “I’m having a terrible day.”

Me: “Sorry, I can’t talk right now. I’m busy being good.”

I like to imagine that the click of me hanging up is what virtue sounds like!

I think the loved ones of the most passionate altruistic people often suffer from this paradox. The ones closest to us often get the worst of us. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s absolutely true. A person doesn’t have to be in dire straits to benefit from your kindness, nor do they have to be a stranger. Some people can be so faithfully present in your life that you can forget that they’re there by choice, and that they need things, too. Surprise someone you’ve been taking for granted.

10. DO GOOD WITH JOY

I have finally stopped being afraid that trying to be a better person will make me terribly boring. I don’t have to laugh any less just because I want to be nice, or because I care that people need my help. Nor are those people a humorless bunch themselves; if anything, they could use a laugh more than anyone. I used to be afraid that if I tried to be kinder, life wouldn’t be as hilarious, but that hasn’t held true so far. Truly artful snark can be a beautiful thing to behold, but most of it is lazy humor — something we reach for because it’s there, because it’s comfortable, because we’re safe in knowing that the world will never stop producing dumb crap that deserves our mockery. More delightful to me is the sort of wry, mature sense of humor that can be found among all kinds of complex people, even do-gooders.

Life is inherently amusing, and refusing to acknowledge that can make people want to avoid your serious ass. Don’t forget to have fun … because I’m willing to bet that your new nursing-home friend, Ethel, is down for a little mischief.

15 Comments

  1. Amy wrote:

    God, this is good. I can’t wait to talk about it in a few weeks. Is that weird?

    Amazing post.

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 7:45 pm | Permalink
  2. Stephanie wrote:

    I selfishly hope you won’t disappear for six months, because your writing is too wonderful and inspirational to miss out on for that long.

    I love this post, and I love that it makes me think about what good I could start doing in my own life. Thank you Jennifer!

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  3. Kristen wrote:

    It’s settled: I want to be your best friend.

    Fantastic action plan.

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 8:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Sierra wrote:

    This is so great.

    So I’m a total stranger (that loves your writing!) and you might already have specific activities in mind, but on the off chance that you’re still looking, have you considered mentoring? It was my own answer to the wanting to do something consistent that I’m accountable for but also sometimes I have to work late and I’m in school and can’t easily just pick one day of the week conundrum. It’s been proven to make a real difference and helps me share my glut of cultural/social/financial resources but works for me because it’s so flexible. It’s also become a tremendous source of joy in my life, even when it’s really difficult.

    I’m not sure where you are in the Bay, but I’d be happy to commect you to the program that I worked with (they serve the East Bay and work with youth with an incarcerated parent and/or youth in the foster care system and really do a fantastic job). Just a thought!

    Wednesday, October 24, 2012 at 11:56 pm | Permalink
  5. A'Dell wrote:

    Oh, I can’t tell you how much of myself I saw in this.

    It’s one thing to think in the back of my head that I’d like to do more, and another to be totally inspired to find a plan and a path.

    Love, love, love.

    Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 5:10 am | Permalink
  6. Janna wrote:

    Thank you. Just thank you.

    Everything in my [recently-separated] life right now says indulge yourself, take care of yourself, keep it right here at home. It’s made me feel restless, like I need to make soup for people. Thank you for reminding me why.

    Echoing Stephanie. Please keep writing!

    Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 8:46 pm | Permalink
  7. agirlandaboy wrote:

    You’re such a gift, Jen. Really, really.

    Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  8. Leigh wrote:

    Thanks for the post.
    Whenever I get a bit strange about “doing good”, or talking about it (per point 7), I am reminded of a great Peter Singer remark. He was asked about the ethics of charity, the interviewer challenging that “many people just want to do good to feel good about themselves. That’s hardly charitable.” To which Singer replied (in sentiment if not verbatim) “Please, give me a world full of people that get their kicks helping others. I’m not seeing a problem here.”
    Indeed.

    Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 10:02 pm | Permalink
  9. Emilie wrote:

    I’m going to need to read over this a few more times, but I can honestly say this post and your last have been the best and most important things I’ve read all week. Probably all month. Thank you.

    Thursday, October 25, 2012 at 11:57 pm | Permalink
  10. Hannah Alyse wrote:

    Fabulous piece. If you’re looking for a long term volunteer service CASA is awesome. I’ll admit (to my everlasting shame) that I backed out of it after awhile, but its a fabulous foster program.
    Also, I like to offer homeless people food when I can and 1)threw the full pizza box at me 2) excepted the apple and when I turned to leave threw it at my back. Shit can be craaaazy! But I’ve had way more times where people were grateful so its always worth a try.
    Anyways, I really enjoyed reading this :)

    Friday, October 26, 2012 at 1:47 am | Permalink
  11. Anna wrote:

    Really great thinking/writing. I wanted to offer two quotes to you. One from a mentor, who told me “We are what we believe. We do what we believe. We cannot act apart from what we believe.” (Janet Bystrom of RECLAIM for LGBT Youth in Minneapolis–She is AWESOME).

    The other quote is from a book called Narrative Therapy, quoted from an article called “Constructing Emancipatory Realities” (I know. Bear with me.)

    “The idea that each of us recreates reality with each encounter fills me with wondrous hope, empowerment and community connection. If there is no absolute truth ‘out there’ to create pristine ‘expert systems’ that can somehow solve our problems mathematically…[i]f we accept that when we enter into dialogue we both change; if it is true that we co-create reality, which in turn creates us—then we are called to a new kind of community”.

    Monday, October 29, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink
  12. megan wrote:

    absolutely wonderful.

    Tuesday, October 30, 2012 at 8:58 am | Permalink
  13. Hashi wrote:

    So much to ponder here. Thank you!

    Monday, November 5, 2012 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  14. Erin wrote:

    Your emails on ‘doing good’ have really stuck with me, and challenged me to reflect on the nature of my own efforts and contributions toward what i see as making the world a bit better.

    I came across this article today and it brought your triptych to mind, so I thought I would share:

    “There’s More to Life Than Being Happy” http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/01/theres-more-to-life-than-being-happy/266805/

    Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink
  15. Erin wrote:

    sorry – meant to say posts not emails in the above message (cursed cold!)

    Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

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