On charity & compassion

I have just received a Whatsapp message from a friend asking me to support her cause by sponsoring a fundraising walkathon for children with heart diseases and disorders. My first voluntary reaction,  I am honest to say, was irritation.

I do not profess to be a particularly kind or sympathetic person, but I know my reasons for my aversion against such appeals to donation, and I want to relate them here, since the incident has started off a chain of internal reasoning.

Firstly, I have nothing against charitable acts. I myself have kept a sponsored child in Laos through World Vision for 10 years. Sometimes I contribute a few coins on flag selling day. I work in charity organisations and have a deep respect for people in the field. I do believe that in a world of dysfunctional politics and unchecked neoliberalism, only kindness to one another can save humanity.

But what made me irritated was that this friend of mine, who is years my senior and runs a quite well-to-do structure marketing firm, should ask me, who, at 33 and still earning less than 150K per month, to support her charitable cause.

Now poverty is not an excuse for being uncharitable. But it is a fact I have less resources I can devote to charity, than a CEO earning four or five times my salary. And with that I have to be careful and only choose the causes most important to me. Of course I am happy someone is doing something for children with heart diseases and disorders, but please do not put that moral obligation on me and take it for granted that I will support because I work in a charity and look like a charitable person. At the very least, explain to me why it is important, convince me as to why I should join in the cause, instead of just sending me a Whatsapp message asking me for money.

Which reminds me of a recent article I read about western travellers asking for travel money on the streets from locals in Asian countries. The writer of the article, an Southeast Asian living in Hong Kong, criticised vehemently the insensibility and immorality of this practice. Her point is basically that historically most Asian countries have been, and probably still are, victims of western imperialism and colonialism, and it is utterly immoral that western travellers should ask money from Asians to fulfill their own selfish romantic dreams of travelling the world. If you want to do it, use your own money. Nobody is obliged to fulfill your dreams. If travelling does not make you more considerate and take you out of your Euro-centric mindset, then it is better you go back to your own country and not travel at all.

But I digress. What I want to say is that being kind and sympathetic and righteous (which apparently my friend thinks I am) does not mean that one is obliged to answer all charitable causes, and that if one refuses ones necessarily becomes a stingy, cold-hearted person. What I want to say is that, if you ask for money, ask someone with more resources and who are too busy keeping their million dollar jobs and are only too happy to support charities the easy way – giving money that they can easily spare in exchange for a clear conscience.

Do not mistake me here, I have no problem with the easy way – my sponsored child is one such gesture – a monthly donation (sent through auto-pay so you can even totally forget about it), perhaps a letter every two months if you feel like it, the greatest moral satisfaction at the least cost (and you enjoy charity tax deduction too). I share news and messages on certain issues and causes through Facebook and I sign online petitions, sometimes not having read through everything before I click. When it is easy, more people are likely to support a charity or a cause. Sad or not, it is in our lazy human instinct to prefer the easy over the difficult.

With me, charity, or compassion for that matter, is not the total sum of money you donate (to whatever cause) or the readiness to give money (to whatever cause). It is understanding the problems of the world, feeling keenly about them, and seeking the best solutions to them. There are both an intellectual and a passionate side to it. It is action, a way of life. So as there are ways of life, there are definitely distinctions between how one feels, thinks and acts regarding different causes.

Through a cash donation I support World Vision, dedicated to the wellbeing and education of children around the world, because I believe in the importance in education in the betterment of the world, and I believe that this organisation is one of the most christian of christian charities: always humble and ready to serve the least among us. I work in charities and non-profits in the arts not just for the petty wages that barely sustain me but because as a cultural practitioner, I strongly believe in the role of art and culture in human society. Instead of making a lot of money in some “immaterial” fields then giving the money to charities, I much prefer to engage in “material” fields and do “concrete” work. Because to me, money making businesses are much less material/concrete than the “conceptual” world of art and culture. Money is just a meaningless number, a means often mistaken as the ends;  but art is invaluable, and is the ends itself. Then occasionally, with what is left of my time and resources, I involve myself in direct actions and social interventions, concerning issues of human rights, civic rights such as freedom of expression, preservation of cultural heritage – all these, including the aforementioned, are the core values that make up my whole belief system. My charity and compassion may be limited, but are consistent and true to my beliefs.

I hope my friend who sees this will not be offended: it is not a criticism of your cause. I simply mean that with all due respect, yours is a charitable act. Just that it is not mine. And if I were to give support, I cannot do it unthinkingly and then feel good about doing a good deed. Hong Kong people are champions of charity donations, and we are too used to solving problems just by a simple click and think that we are charitable when we do not even understand what is at stake. But not me, I cannot afford this kind of indiscriminate compassion.