A Giving Fix

I did something selfish this week.

And it felt so good.

I suppose most of us have always known, deep down, that when we volunteer or give money to a good cause, our motivation may be mixed. Yes, the efforts help the charity, the less fortunate, but we get something out of it too. Maybe it’s public recognition, which we secretly – or not so-secretly – crave. God knows when I gave to various theatres a few years ago, I scanned the programs to make sure I was on the list of donors.

Maybe the good deeds will bring accolades from a boss, or are just an expected part of one’s duties. Gotta have the right public service to climb up the corporate ladder, hmm, and what high-school senior expects to get into a good college these days without some demonstration of altruism on the application?

Then there’s the sense that doing a good deed is its own reward, but one that also makes us feel good inside. As one health philanthropist recently told the New York Times, “The most selfish thing you can do is to help other people.”

As the Times article noted, recent research has shown that we are seemingly hard-wired to get as much of a kick from good works as from champagne or cocaine (if only Cole Porter had known…). In a study (one actually a few years old; more on it here), test subjects were told to think about giving money to a poor person. Scans revealed that merely thinking about the charitable act stoked the parts of the brain “that are normally associated with selfish pleasures like eating or sex.” Of course, those two “pleasures” are basic to our survival, and so maybe altruism is too. Evolutionarily speaking, we are doing something beneficial for the species with our small acts of kindness.

(The Post article cited above suggests this too, though it came to me before I read it. Makes sense, yes? Of course, it might also make the religious among us a little perturbed. You mean it’s biology and not Godly directed activity? Again? D’oh!)

An RFBD recording booth; for some reason, I loved editing the recordings.

I had done a steady volunteer gig in Chicago, recording books on disc for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic. Since coming back to CT, I’d been looking for another outlet for my altruism; beyond helping others, it’s also a good excuse to get out of the house and end my daily isolation (ah, so another selfish reward). I found a local charity that dealt with one of my big concerns: food, or specifically, getting enough to everyone who needs it. I’d been involved, if only tangentially, with the macro side of the issue when I served on the board of the Hartford Food System (recounted a bit earlier at the Crisis here). Now, I would get a taste of the micro, at the West Haven Emergency Assistance Task Force (WHEAT).

I discovered WHEAT this summer when a local organization held a food drive for it at our neighborhood Stop & Shop. One of the principles of the sponsoring group was Phil Liscio, who gives countless hours to several organizations in town. A real mensch, as my wife might say, if she were prone to going around spouting Yiddish. Phil put me in touch with the head of WHEAT, and I had my first afternoon there this week.

No oatmeal, damnit!

The work, like a lot of volunteer work, is not glamorous. WHEAT has several tasks, but its main function is running a food pantry. I and a few other volunteers stacked cans and boxes of food, prepared bags for the patrons, and found time to gab a little as we worked. We were in a large room filled with cabinets and shelves, while another volunteer manned the front desk and distributed the bags. While I couldn’t see the people coming in, I heard them. Some of them had dietary requirements that the back-room vets quickly scrambled to fill: formula for infants, a no-sugar item for a diabetic, a different kind of meat to replace the pork someone else couldn‘t eat. And switch out the oatmeal for this one because – well, he just doesn‘t like oatmeal.

My co-workers took some of the items out to the lobby, sometimes exchanging pleasantries with the regulars who stopped by. One man, they told me – “such a nice man” – was homeless. They made sure he got his own bag that took his special needs into account: pop-top cans only, and nothing that needed to be heated or mixed with water.

Results of a food drive - every little bit helps.

The pantry is part of a large network that tries to help as many people as it can. The government provides funding and local banks and grocery stores drop off cases of food. Boy Scouts, churches, and school classrooms run food drives to fill the shelves, and at times local residents haul in bags of groceries, two or three at a time, holding a mish-mash of canned fruit and pasta and maybe a cake mix for some kid’s next birthday. It all helps.

A soup kitchen in New Haven is also part of the network. It sometimes receive packages of food, rice say, in individual one-pound bags. WHEAT might get institutional-sized bags. The two groups swap, since it’s easier for the pantry to have the smaller amounts already packaged, and the soup kitchen, with its large daily needs, can easily cook up a 25-pound bag of rice or whatever.

Philanthropy at the micro level, I learn, has its idiosyncrasies. The volunteers never know exactly what will go into a bag, though certain staples are assured, in one variety or another. The meats change, the exact type of canned veggie or fruit changes, some items are out one day, while others overflow the shelves. The recent holidays brought huge donations of gravy and cranberries, as people figured the poor must want the fixings for their turkey dinner too, right? But the donors were too generous; right now, WHEAT has enough gravy and cranberries to feed several armies. Ah, well, I say, you’ll have plenty for the holidays this year. But of course, fresh donations of those year-end staples will keep the surplus never-ending.

My first shift went by quickly. It felt good to be on my feet, being active, talking with people in the community. The walk to the pantry was good too, an easy stroll from our home. My god, this was selfish on so many levels! I had several thoughts as I made that walk home. Once again, I pondered how insane it is for the richest country in the world to have so many people who can’t afford enough to eat. I’m sure the number now is inflated by the recession, but we know the need will not disappear when the jobs come back. (And what kind of jobs will they be: CT continues to lose manufacturing jobs, and even in the “good ol’days” of the past, some West Haven folks faced tough times.) Then I thought about the generosity that keeps the pantry’s shelves full. Some of that generosity is now focused abroad, as Haiti tries to pull out of its calamity. It’s right to help those overseas who need it. But there is a daily need here that we should fill. A constant chance to get that kick that only selfish giving provides.

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~ by mburgan on January 22, 2010.

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