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Doing good out loud.

In keeping with Rule 5 of my Do-Good Manifesto, “Do good out loud,” I want to tell you about a new effort I’ve been making toward moderation — toward walking that line between barreling onward in a life of privilege versus disconnecting from my social circumstances, changing my name to the Chinese symbol for “heart”, swearing off all wealth and material possessions, and starting some kind of agnostic evangelistic sect.

(The “sleeping in yurts” part might be fun, but the “pooping behind the shrubbery” part is less ideal.)

I say “barreling onward in a life of privilege” because I feel a continual desire to do just that, in the name of self-actualization. The temptation is to take my enjoyment of my own experiences seriously, to make my own life my mission, to serve as my own camp counselor as I painstakingly contrive activities for myself so that I can watch myself doing them and feel … something. I don’t know what.

A sense of having arrived? The satisfaction I can get from finding and exercising the power to become something I saw in a dream?

This is starting to sound like a criticism of life lists, but lists are an innocent medium. The movement that encourages them is not twisting our arms to put anything specific on them. What we put on them is who we have decided to become, and there’s no blaming anyone else. As I’ve already said during a rather large-scale Twitter conversation on the subject, I have seen marvelous life lists, and I have seen ones that make me cringe with embarrassment, ones that don’t include a single item acknowledging the existence of a greater community.

But now, a hurricane has come, and maybe we’re all thinking a little harder. Maybe humanity feels a little more personal at the moment. I’ve seen worse silver linings.

In every difficult endeavor, I feel as though we’re always learning the same two things over and over again. When it comes to altruism, I have resisted these two tenets because they didn’t satisfy my middle-class obsession with grandeur — an obsession with not only easing suffering, but with getting a really good story out of it, and with getting to become someone special in my efforts:

1. Everything counts.
2. Moderation, as tragically unglamorous as it is, will likely get you farther than the alternatives.

You can see this pattern everywhere. The first step is vigilance. The second is patience.

Anyone who has lost weight with the help of a calorie counter can tell you that every bite is significant. Anyone who has ever run a marathon can tell you that running six miles is not running five miles is not running four miles.

The idea that everything counts is one of the most beautiful and terrifying truths of physics. The closest thing I have to a spiritual faith is that reassurance that life may not be fair, and we may not all have the same advantages, but that the magic of things like addition and subtraction and gravity belongs to every single one of us.

I am trying to learn to respect the power of the spoonful, of the single step, of that one humble little item on the life list that isn’t like the others.

So here is my small step: I am feeding people. It’s not technically a life list item, because I’m not putting a number on it, but I am making it part of my life and seeing how far I can get.

Sometimes, when I buy something I don’t really need, I’m donating the same amount to charity. This helps me confront the uncomfortable relationship between my lifestyle and the world at large, inviting it in and letting it stay awhile instead of panicking over its inherent, maddening hypocrisy.

That relationship is nonetheless still shocking, now that I finally have the guts to sit here and quantify it.

For instance, this basic T-shirt?

I bought it. And then, for the same price, I bought 160 meals.

Yeah.

If you want a more direct comparison, I recently enjoyed an evening out with friends at Dosa, a mid-priced restaurant in San Francisco.

The price of that one meal for me ($23) bought 184 meals for other people.

That astonishes me, so I’m going to try to keep going. It doesn’t have flair, and it wouldn’t be worth much on Instagram, but it’s an initiative with a measurable contribution (one that will live in my sidebar without much fanfare, but you’re welcome to check in if you’re curious). Who knows? Maybe I can get fancy later. But for now, this is where I am. I’m starting here.

After all of this blogging about my restless desire to get over my own life and make a difference, I am finally setting aside my excuses and my flights of fancy and getting to work. It’s about time, and it feels good.

7 Comments

  1. Elly wrote:

    Good for you, hey. That’s really awesome. What charity are you supporting? It sounds like it’s an easy way to strike a balance between privilege and supporting those less fortunate. High five, hey! :)

    Monday, November 5, 2012 at 8:14 am | Permalink
  2. Jen wrote:

    Elly, it’s Feeding America, and yeah, they have a really good economy of scale that makes your money go a long way. They’re also helping in the Sandy recovery efforts. Thanks for asking — I’ll change the post to include the link.

    Monday, November 5, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink
  3. CharlieSue wrote:

    I don’t know quite how to say this in a way which really SAYS what I want to SAY, but you? Are INSPIRING and BRILLIANT.

    Monday, November 5, 2012 at 12:28 pm | Permalink
  4. RobinM wrote:

    That is one of the most streamlined efforts I have seen. Usually recos on giving have a grandiosity to them that seems unattainable but, a personal indulgence with equal help…so simple.
    As a designer I embrace “The simplest solution is the the best.”
    Very glad you are back to posting as well. I love your writing and this journey you are on.

    Monday, November 5, 2012 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  5. Patti wrote:

    The Salvation Army is also a good organization. They spend very little on administrative costs.

    Thursday, November 8, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink
  6. Diary of Why wrote:

    This is one of the more refreshing things I have read in the blog world in a while. Thank you, thank you.

    Friday, November 9, 2012 at 7:14 am | Permalink
  7. janine wrote:

    Very nice. People confuse humility with humiliation. It’s quite liberating, as you have discovered :-)

    Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 12:01 am | Permalink

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