Selfless donations clash with ostentatious lifestyle

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For evidence of humanity in action, look toward the fact that nearly half of American households have donated to Haiti. This is a commendable part of human nature, as evidenced by the multitude of charitable organizations with a large quantity of donated relief items pouring in: toothbrushes and combs to Brother’s Brother, medical supplies to AmeriCares, family kits to Oxfam, as well as individual monetary donations. These efforts illustrate that caring is effective at the individual level, and a difference can be made with the sum of small contributions. This part of donating is certainly commendable.

However, do consider: The massive outpouring from the rich country only comes to the poor country in times of duress. The donations are a release of emotions as well as a release of purse strings. We want to feel something when helping an impoverished nation, and that something has to be unquestionably good. We desperately want to help ameliorate a devastating situation even at a distance, and we definitely do not want to be the odd one out — the apathetic non-donor. Photographic evidence tugs at our sympathy, making our comfort seem ostentatious in comparison to the overwhelming nothing the Haitians are left with. And thus, we donate.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that at some level, no matter what action we take, it feels inherently hypocritical. Our attention is commanded by disaster, devastation, and visceral, raw emotion. We donate and we care for a people with nothing because it feels irresponsible to have so much for ourselves. Even in the act of donating, the hypocrisy is that we may donate now, but by the metaphorical tomorrow, we may not. The greatest hypocrisy is caring so much in a concentrated period of time while still yearning for more material things for ourselves.

Materialism is inherent. Despite this, I am baffled by those who are not baffled by their own actions of genuinely caring so much for humanitarian purposes while at the same time accumulating more for themselves. Are we at odds with ourselves for writing a check to earthquake relief one moment and enjoying our luxury goods the next? Are we at odds with ourselves for watching the devastation from our HD flat screens, giving our credit card number to a relief agency, putting the card back into our Coach purses, and simultaneously amassing new scarves, bags, shoes, vacations — what have you — for our own temporal, carnal enjoyment? Do we not feel an inherent dissonance in wanting far more than is necessary while nations very close to us have so little, or is it that we placate this selfish mindset with good acts? I think not, because I do want to believe that caring comes from caring, not placation. Thus, the situation is even more baffling that we want both sides of selflessness and selfishness so earnestly.

The real test is after the fact. Do we keep on spending excessively despite the abject poverty that we are now awakened to, or do we use this as a lesson and a reminder that most material things we gladly pay for are transient whims and start appreciating everything we already have? This we have to settle for ourselves.