The Case for Philanthropy

I’m basically a useless human being. Most of my time is spent in the voracious consumption of goods that degrade the environment. I drive around in an eight-person SUV with a 19-gallon tank that costs a gazillion dollars to fill. I turn the water on full blast when I bathe and I love anything that comes in an abundance of plastic wrapping. I am an environmentalist’s nightmare. Boo bloody hoo Al Gore!

I think exclusively of myself. I worry about the Joneses next door and I go online to surreptitiously track down old flames, friends and foes to ensure I’m keeping up with their achievements.

I’ve done nothing extraordinary with my life. In fact, I am best described as a drain upon our resources. Even the organic tomatoes I tried to grow in a rare fit of philanthropy ended up rotting on their vines untended. You see, I could not bring myself to go out and water them.

So it was with skepticism that I started to read Greg Mortensen’s book “Three Cups of Tea.” Usually, I am loath to hear about do-gooders. They’re so utterly boring, so responsible they give one such feelings of inadequacy. Besides, I hate causes. There’s always some other sad story about widows and orphans and dying and starvation and war and tsunamis. So overdone. Somebody please hit the [delete] key. Stat.

No, I’m best left to my own cozy little nook of the world, surrounded by worldly goods.

But I read that book. Cover to cover. And suddenly I wanted to take the next plane to the Himalayas and start educating snotty little village brats amid fields of apricot.

This impulse was new to me. Caring? Moi? I called up my sister, a doctor, and asked her if I was perhaps having a breakdown or a mid-life crisis.

“No,” she replied as if talking to someone with seriously watered down faculties, “You’re just trying to find fulfillment.”

Huh? What sort of rubbish is that? When had she traded in her medical degree for a quack’s hat? Fulfillment to me comes in only one form, with oodles of whipped cream and a cherry on top. I hung up feeling even more confused.

But the book glared up at me like one of those popular Japanese Daruma dolls one sees in all the corporate offices these days. Reminding me, reminding me.

I tried giving my copy away, but my fellow Americans got scared by the picture of three veiled girls on the cover, and politely refused my little Trojan horse. So I was stuck with the book, and tortured by this feeling of wanting to do something good with my otherwise self-involved self.

The thing is, Mortensen is the modern day Mother Theresa. The kind of person I’ll never be. Selfless and devoted to the cause of literacy in the backwaters of the world, he has fought almost single-handedly against the advent of terrorism in a region that would otherwise be churning out the next Osama by the hordes.

Moreover, I hate compelling cases. They make it so hard to turn on the television and watch The Office.

There was only one thing to do. Write a check to his organization, the Central Asia Institute. That would banish the demons once and for all.

I posted the check with a new raised-rate stamp and prepared to re-enter the happy bubble that was my life.

Wrong. Apparently a little of the green stuff won’t banish the demons of charity. Maybe I was infected with Angelina Jolie-ism. Next thing I’d be adopting a goatherd’s kid from the Steppes of Mongolia. Heaven forbid.

Voodoo, hypnotherapy, reflexology and acupuncture failed to rid me of the feeling. I got desperate.

Thinking about others is such a horrible impulse. I felt like Atlas, with the world on my shoulders, unable to deposit my load on any other unwilling beast of burden. Everything from my old, egocentric existence suddenly lost its meaning the daily latte, shopping online, eating out.

Caving in was the only remaining option. Against my better judgment I decided to turn altruistic in a series of small steps. I reduced my water consumption, purchased a bike and bought some sturdy canvas bags for all those groceries I brought back from the local farmer’s market. Why, I even watched “An Inconvenient Truth!”

At the end of the day, I remain a sadly unproductive creature. Thanks to my paltry efforts the bees haven’t staked a remarkable reemergence, global melting hasn’t stopped and terrorism certainly hasn’t become obsolete. But every month as I send my check to Mortensen’s organization, I know I am responsible for educating a child who would otherwise be left to propagate another generation of disillusioned children with no access to many of the luxuries I take for granted. I know I am fighting terrorism with knowledge. I know I am another American whose easily foregone largess will make lifelong and staunch allies of otherwise potential enemies.

I’m basically a useless human being. But once a month, I do something truly extraordinary. And that’s a pretty sublime, utterly amazing feeling.