Unfreezing the Cycle of Charity

The other day I was called out for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (more aptly dubbed the “Freeze Your Buns Off” challenge) by a very good friend of mine from college, who not only donated money, but also got himself sopping wet, to great comedic effect.

There’s been a lot of discussion floating around online about this, of course; there’s articles about how doing the challenge does or doesn’t make you a humanitarian (as a life-long vegetarian, I always thought that term seemed humorous, as it seemed to imply that one would be a cannibal); there’s the the “skeptical kid” meme (I’ve seen that same look from my choirboys); one that caught my eye was the mention by another friend about whether this would effect donations for other charities/organizations.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Baby

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Baby

Ultimately, I accepted challenge, but decided to alter it a little bit. The ALS foundation has raised a phenomenal amount of money. And that’s great! Organizations like this deserve to have the funds they need to do research and raise awareness of their programs. However, I decided instead to donate to Alzheimer’s research in memory of my grandmother, who had Alzheimers for (as far as we know) the last ten years of her life. Even in the advanced stages of the disease, my grandfather could still get her to smile with certain phrases or absolutely horrendous puns. I remember her walking in to their living room after my brother or I would practice piano, and she’d be a little more lucid for a moment, and she’d sit down and play a hymn or two. (I also remember working on my Dohnanyi technique book and my grandmother asking my mom if I could play something a little more interesting. The lesson: don’t mess with Norwegians.) 

Regardless of what organization I gave to, or whom someone else gave to, or who you give to, if you decide to, (perhaps you should give to the “don’t end clauses with prepositions” foundation; my grammar-sensitive grandfather would have shuddered to read that last part of the sentence), though, the whole Ice Bucket Freeze Your Buns Off Challenge is really remarkable because it shows that gift-motion is alive and well in the 21st century – or at least it can be, in the right circumstances. Lewis Hyde, in his book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (since retitled), considers a variety of scenarios about gift-giving, particularly how it runs counter to a commodity culture. A commodity culture is based on rules, regulations, fixed amounts, and boundaries; gifts destroy these. In fact, gifts create and cement community. And, frequently, gifts are costly: in time, or effort, or price. This is because costliness helps create meaning (though meaning doesn’t necessarily have to be costly); if you see a male peacock strut his stuff, he’s sending a reliable (but incredibly costly) signal about his ability to survive predators (and therefore the relative success of his genetic stock) despite that tail he has to drag around. By dumping ice on our heads, or by giving some of our hard-earned money to organizations who will work hard with that money, we are aiding in circulating reliable and costly gift-signals that are working counter to a commodity culture, and lifting up a gift-culture. (We’re also creating some phenomenally awful fail videos, available on Buzzfeed.) It’s creating a bubble of culture wherein it’s not the money or action that we spend that becomes the measure of our social-network-worth, but what we give, whether it’s a monetary donation, a costly signal, or an overly long post. And if we could continue to foster that in our everyday culture – that giving is “worth” more than spending – then that’s a pretty good thing.