By now, we've all seen those terrible pictures coming out of Russia. My Facebook wall is littered with posts about Russia's terrible LGBT policies, and pictures of bloody citizens with captions like, "THIS HAS TO STOP!" or "Something must be done NOW!"
Last year, a heartbreaking video made the rounds about Joseph Kony, the Ugandan dictator with an army of child soldiers. People posted the video, people watched the video, people said, "Unbelievable! So moving! Just watch this!"
News from Attawipiskat had pictures of malnourished children living in overcrowded, poorly insulated sheds. Journalists who manage to sneak into North Korea bring back haunting portraits of starvation and torture. Something's always up in the Sudan and it's never fun.
Lumping Russia in with Joseph Kony seems unfair because #KONY2012 became a movement, then a meme when the organizer responsible stripped to his underwear and was filmed ranting and raving on a street corner. But are gays being persecuted in Russia any better or worse than children enslaved and killed in Uganda? Just because Attawipiskat is no longer in the news cycle, are we to assume everyone there is suddenly fed and well-cared for?
I know creating awareness is important, but I have to constantly remind myself that saying something is not the same as doing something. Signing a petition on the internet for a cause across the world does less to help one's fellow man than showing up at the soup kitchen in your town brandishing a ladle.
Let me put it another way. I have a relative who used to be a nurse (I say "used to be", but this relative is not dead, just in another stream of the healthcare profession that doesn't deal with patients directly). As a nurse, this relative interacted daily with the sick, the crazy, the very old, and the dying in a meaningful, practical, matter-of-fact way. Patients were bathed, fed, clothed, medicated, and in many cases, saved. Another relative works in a shelter for abused women, finding them work, food, housing, protection, dealing with the complexities of their lives on a case by case, woman by woman basis. A dear friend lives and works in fucking Peru, right in their poorest communities, teaching the economically disadvantaged about options to improve and sustain their lives in practical, tangible ways. This is not bleeding heart volunteerism, these are careers that my relatives and friend have (all women, by the way, which surely says something significant) and helping people is simply part of their job.
I, meanwhile, would be a mess in all of the above situations. I was volunteering a few weeks ago at a Kids With Cancer relay race fundraiser along with some coworkers. It was our job to pick up garbage, and we laughed and joked with each other while lazily clearing the grounds. Waiting in line for my free pizza lunch, I saw what looked like an entire family each wearing the same sweatshirt. A white knit with the ironed on picture of a little bald kid and text that read "Team Aiden". Older folks, people I assumed to be Grandma and Grandpa, had ballcaps that said "Team Aiden" little cousins sported buttons that read, "Team Aiden." Then, running up alongside them, I saw a little bald kid who could have only been Aiden. Instead of cheering like other participants were (this was a relay race, after all), I made some sound between a cough and a yelp, ran to a nearby portajohn, and sobbed as quietly and discreetly as possible until I could clean myself up and get back in line for pizza. I tell you this not to appear virtuous, but to point out that my fragility in this situation helped no one. I couldn't pick up my garbage, nor could I even cheer on a kid with cancer at a Kids With Cancer fundraiser.
The thing is, you don't deserve a fucking medal if you feel things more deeply than other people. Crying over a bald kid or posting pictures of injured Russians does less to help people in pain than working in a battered women's shelter or teaching Peruvians how to survive. I say again, saying something is not the same as doing something, so it's time to get off my goddamn high horse and do some stuff.
Dream: Do things to help people.
Goal: Achievable, with caveats. We post pictures, we link to articles, we cry "SOMETHING MUST BE DONE!" on Facebook and Twitter in the name of equality, but if we truly believe in equality, doesn't it make more sense to help the suffering members of your own community, where you have a greater chance of affecting real, tangible change? I think so.
I feel terrible for gays in Russia, for instance, but I have yet to hear exactly what to do in order to help them. Not buying Russian vodka, as Dan Savage suggests, might be a short-sighted non-solution to a complex problem. Most "Russian" vodkas are actually made in countries like Latvia and Luxembourg and have small to negligible effects on Russia's economy, and if we actually wanted to put the screws to Putin, we'd be better off not relying on Russia's oil industry, upon which half of Europe and all of the US is dependant and so good luck turning that around before the Olympic Games. Plus, bad as things are in Russia, things are worse for gays in New Guinea, Jamaica, Zimbabwe, Syria, and at least fifty other countries. And it's worth pointing out that one can hide one's sexuality when in imminent danger, but if you're a woman or of a different race in countries where that is an issue, you've nowhere to hide and you deal with that danger every day. But providing aid to those in trouble shouldn't be about gender vs. race, gays vs. straights or vodka over oil. If we're serious about helping our fellow man (and we should be), let's take the trope as a truism and realize that charity begins at home.
Plan: Take real action, big or small, to affect real change right where I live. Do things like...
Volunteer. Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best ones. I never used to volunteer anywhere and that was mostly the result of laziness combined with shift work. I couldn't commit to Tuesday nights manning the gift shop at a hospital, for example, because that would mean losing a potential shift every Tuesday night. But now I work for a cold, heartless corporation that encourages volunteerism in its staff members. Even if this is just a PR move, I don't care. It means that random volunteer opportunities get posted in the breakroom, one-off chances to help in a soup kitchen, or pick up garbage at a relay race and cry, but by signing up for those things, you get that day free on your work schedule and pick up another shift at another time. In other words, volunteering through work rather than outside of work means that scheduling my life isn't a logistical nightmare. It's worth checking to see if your workplace has some kind of volunteer incentive program. Often there's a chance to volunteer for events rather than a consistent shift. Three hours selling 50/50 tickets at a steak night feels better than three hours wringing your hands about a depressing statistic from the comfort of your own home.
Consider your dollar. I'm a bit conflicted about handing over a buck to the panhandler. On one hand, maybe they are super-hungry and haven't eaten in days. I'm going to ignore them so I can buy an extra 3 Musketeers for myself because "I deserve a treat!"? But there are certainly other panhandlers handling all those pans to feed a drug or alcohol habit. So sometimes I think they're just going to spend my money on drugs, but I wonder why that bothers me anyway. Addiction is strong enough to destroy lives, a drug addict suffering unassisted withdrawal puts his health in jeopardy, and also who am I to pass judgement like that? But the possibility that really gets my goat is the idea that some panhandlers don't need to be panhandling! I wish I could find the article to cite this, but apparently it's not unheard of that people asking for change outside the liquor store have stable homes and are just looking for a few extra bucks. There's a woman who panhandles at a nearby store and she lives in my building. Even if her rent is subsidized, surely she's paying her portion with more than quarters out of a hat. And she lives with her boyfriend who seems to have a job in construction or something. For those reasons, I don't often part with my dollar when asked for it on the street, but if I'm going into a convenience store or Tims or something, I'll sometimes stop and ask if they want a coffee or something to eat. Most say no, but some say yes, and I feel a lot better spending the extra dollar that way.
Put one more item on the grocery list. This is the easiest thing in the world to do. Next time you're out shopping, buy a can of store brand creamed corn, or get a thing of macaroni and cheese, or one extra box of noodles. There are hundreds of nonperishable grocery store items you can find for less than a buck. After you've paid for your groceries but before you exit the store, find the big food bank bin and just toss that one item in there (or, if you have the means, a whole bag of stuff) and feel great. I don't know about every grocery store, but most big chains like Sobeys and Safeway have that big bin right close to the checkout. When I think about all the leftovers I never get to and throw out, all the lentils and quinoa I buy with healthy intentions before finding them later and thinking, "This is some kinda bullshit", I really can spare the extra sixty goddamn cents for some kidney beans for people who are actually hungry.
Find that one thing you're really good at and don't get paid for it. This advice is a pain the ass because most people I know are looking to get paid for the thing that they are good at, including me, but until that day comes, we may as well quit bitching and do some stuff gratis. After a few shifts at a local charity I'm sure I've mentioned before but probably should have kept anonymous (let's call it Vittles in Vehicles), I started pestering the boss about how I am a writer good. Now I write the Vittles in Vehicles newsletters and mailouts every month from home for free and it's great. The last one I did I had to turn around quickly because the request came a little late. My boss wrote back, "Thanks for these, James. If you hadn't done this, it wouldn't have gotten done." That, to me, is small but important proof of my small but important contribution.
I know this entry is insufferable and goody-goody, but I write it here as much to hold myself to these standards as anything else. It's surely better and healthier to do charitable things anonymously, but I need to be held accountable. Also, it's time that helping other people wasn't seen as virtuous, but essential. Terrible things are going on in the world that simply can't be fixed by internet petitions or having the bloodiest bleeding heart. I so admire the people with the courage to get on the front lines, open the shelter, visit the orphanage, face the onslaught of bad stuff, but my admiration isn't enough to do anything. As a friend said recently about this Russia stuff, "At least we know there are people in the world who do know what the answer is, but I think this will be a slow process. We have to wait until they figure it out." I agree. Until we know how to help the entire global community, let's work a little harder and dig a little deeper to help our own community, however small it may be, because something must be done now.