There are many ways to rid oneself of guilt. Some of us shred bank statements and receipts. Others noisily recycle those twelve bottles of wine and peach schnapps from the “quiet night-in” with friends the evening before (to, you know, save the planet and stuff). Personally, I flee to the gym after gorging on cheesecake and nachos all week to spend a lacklustre half hour vaguely shifting about on a stiff rowing machine and trying not to so seductively drool in the direction of the 8.5 powering the machine opposite (tip: go in the morning, the place is like a human BUFFET).
It’s just the done thing here in the Western world, to shake guilt off like moral dandruff. We have so much whilst others have so comparatively little, it’s near-impossible not to let just a little of that guilt seep in to our culture just as it (presumably) does our personal lives, for which we often forget to be grateful. That’s not to negate the devastating impact of ceaseless austerity on people here, in our own country, or to suggest that the disheartening wealth gap between the richest and poorest in our society is any less so. Just that our depressingly individualist approach to life over here means that giving is more important than ever before.
And it got me thinking: what can I give? Technically speaking I’m on a gap year until I re-start university in September 2014, which inductively merits at least the mere contemplation of giving my time to go on an African ego-trip. But that’s not really for me. Fixing houses and teaching kids the alphabet is all very well and good for suburban private school robots in need of Facebook likes, but it isn’t really going to achieve much in the way of real help. I know a fair few people who have backpacked across Eastern Europe spreading the word of Christ but a) the only missionary work I enjoy is the kind that requires not-so-holy-water based lubricants, and b) I don’t speak Hebrew.
It’s not even as though I have a skill set the under-12s of Ghana could really use anyway: not unless they particularly need help in erasing white wine stains from rugs or quoting internet memes in casual conversation to avoid giving a genuine opinion (ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat).
No. What I need to do is give money to a charity, or multiple charities: charities that do the real work in helping people. And though I am just a lowly part-time retail peasant, setting up a debit payment of £3 or so a month is hardly going to drive me in to the workhouse (which, though non-existent, I happen to envisage to look exactly like that bit in Les Misérables when Anne Hathaway gets happy-slapped by the factory girls from Coronation Street).
To which charity do I donate though? Unhelpfully they are not like universities or football teams: there is no league table. No one is going around awarding Top Trumps-style scores to Shelter and Oxfam based on their incomparable achievements in wildly varying fields. Nor is anyone putting up reviews online (“The handwriting of Lucky, the Dog’s Trust puppy I am newly sponsoring, is suspiciously neat for that of a canine with no pen-holding abilities”, etc). It would seem I am going to have to decide on one (for perhaps just one charity is a good place to start until I earn more later in life) based upon my own ethical inclinations.
Do I prioritise my belief that more renewable energy is needed to stop us killing the planet? Or that homelessness should be non-existent in twenty-first century Britain? Do I choose between starving Africans and starving pensioners?
Charity shopping is an absolute minefield of human failings: issues that governments and world leaders should have committed themselves to solving decades ago, snowballing through time, feeding off of weak political non-activism and weak social outcry. But I know, or hope, that there is somewhere I can send a little bit of money each month that will satisfy me in the knowledge that it is doing a tiny bit of good. I grew up admiring people like J.K Rowling (or Robert Galbraith as she evidently prefers to be known as nowadays) and Oprah Winfrey, people who give away most of what they earn simply because it’s the right fucking thing to do.
And as much as this endears them to us, we know such people give because they’re confident in their priorities and their standpoint. It would be far easier in many ways to just keep the vast sums they have access to, and to live increasingly spun-out hedonistic lives of luxury on par with the investment wankers and property tycoons of the world, the ones they must surely come in to contact with in social settings.
But they don’t, and those of us who want to achieve true greatness in our brief lives really ought to take heed.