Why Do We Give?

by Glen

This past weekend’s activities, along with speaking with some Afghanistan veterans during yesterday’s Remembrance Day activities, put me in a philosophical mood. Seeing so many citizens put their best foot forward caused me to ask, “Why do people give so generously?” Lots of theories popped into my mind, but still, the act of sacrificing something you own for someone else is perhaps the most noble trait resident within the human race.  Some give in order to get something in return (recognition or favour), while others donate through a kind of enlightened self-interest.  Still others give because there is a personal connection to some ultimate cause.

And then you volunteer for the London Food Bank in the Santa Claus parade and you witness another dimension altogether. Watching thousands lining the parade route, braving the cold and the wind, holding out non-perishable food items in their hands, I was again taken aback, as I am every year.  In the busy world of food bank activities, this is my favourite event because you meet so many people on one particular occasion and you get the chance to thank them. I didn’t know those people, nor they me.  It would be the only time they would all gather together like this in that one place, called together by a kind of civic compassion that was hardly organized or manipulated.  They sat patiently with others they didn’t know until that night – and they gave.

To who?  Well, they really didn’t know.  To the homeless, the hungry, fellow citizens in times of trouble?  All of the above, I’m sure.  But the point is that they gave to other people they didn’t even know, and in that precious moment civic virtue was born anew and validated.  They understood that their gift wasn’t a job, or a place to live, but they wanted to play their own small part, and when the thousands of them were added together the yield from that instinct would feed hungry families for some time to come.

Most of us can say what we care about, but experience a harder time attesting to what we want to achieve with our giving.  Some say that is kind of foolish; I say it is human.  Sometimes the greatest compassion is reserved for those moments when we are moved by an urge we can neither define nor prove.  It just “is” and we know that if we don’t act in that moment, then we will be poorer as individuals for our lack of spontaneity. To come together anonymously as these citizens did, and to provide for needy families in their midst without any organization, is beyond explanation, other than it is human to give even when we don’t comprehend the ultimate purpose of such acts.

In such moments, the observation of Antonio Porchia bears itself out:  “I know what I have given you … I do not know what you have received.”

Well, I can tell you what I received that evening: hope.  There remains this abiding belief that if people can give from their heart on a moment of impulse, there is yet hope for our communities – not because giving to a food bank is any ultimate answer to hunger, but because if the impulse is there to sacrifice, then at some point we might yet learn to fight poverty in ways that will lead to justice and an enhanced sense of social equality.  In such moments, how we give collectively might be worth more than what we actually give because it represents one clear conclusion: we see the good in the world because we choose to and don’t just imagine it.  We understand that the good is there to be noticed and pursued, not made up, and in such a reckoning lies a future worth following and communities worth building.

In the thousands of sets of eyes, on a windy November evening, I saw the possibilities of betterment for our future, that a collective life of austerity need not be our only path forward.  The very lack of definition or organization left the very progressive instincts of our humanity open for all to see – people just naturally gave.  There is a future in such stuff.