Giving What We Can put me in hospital. I was only a few steps from the postbox after posting my signed pledge back to GWWC. I’d been toying with the idea of becoming a member for something like a year, during which time I’d been agonising over a Masters dissertation on the very topic of how far our obligations to those in the developing world stretch. So after all this time, I was pleased with myself for having finally mustered up the courage to sign the pledge. I had felt a certain gravity and importance in the action of signing it and closing the envelope. I had gone to the letterbox, presumably with some kind of spring in my step, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d let out a resounding “ahhh” as I posted the letter into the slot.
But I can’t quite remember now, because a few seconds later I was stumbling around in pain. I was marching down the hill from the letterbox when some debris flew from a nearby building site and caught me in the eye. I’ve made this sound more serious than it is – whatever it was was tiny and there was no permanent damage. At any rate, I found myself in A&E that evening.
I can only speak for myself, but the juxtaposition of these two significant events made it feel natural to consider whether there was a connection between them. It felt like the universe was putting me in my place for being too self-satisfied about my increase in charitable giving. Or maybe it was trying to balance out the suffering that I’d averted.
Of course, the real answer is that it was just a coincidence. Really I don’t believe the universe works like that, and I only entertain these karmic ideas for fun. (There isn’t much to do in A&E, and you have to think about something.)
It was at this point, or somewhere thereabouts, that I realised how awful I was being. Sure, my eye hurt. Rather a lot. But there I was, sitting in a huge hospital, waiting for free (I’m a tax-dodging student) healthcare from some professionals who, from a global perspective at least, were top of their game. My suffering (and that even seems like too strong a word for it) was miniscule compared to everything else that goes on in the world.
This idea that we in the developed world are all so lucky and privileged and so on is of course not new. It’s a downright cliché that we’ve all heard millions of times, starting from when we were reminded of the “starving children in Africa” by our irate parents as they tried to get us to eat whatever wittles they’d put in front of us. You may even have rolled your eyes at my use of this cliché. But I suggest you roll them back. Yes, we’ve all heard thousands of times how minor all the bad things that happen to us are compared to the plight of billions the world over. But the very fact that this concept has become a cliché is absolutely appalling. My own mother (sorry ma) changes the channel whenever a charitable appeal comes on the telly because she finds them boring. Boring. Imagine if you were starving to death (another cliché I suppose) and somebody came upon you, only to comment that your misery was, to them, merely yawn-inducing. “Seen it before, mate. Try something new”. You’d be absolutely aghast, if you weren’t too busy suffering to pay them any attention.
We’d do well to remind ourselves that, to the people who are affected, the situation is far from cliché. When I was growing up, it was just one of those facts of life that there were loads of people dying all around the world. I don’t think I felt powerless, I just don’t think it occurred to me to do anything about it. Now it has, and the hospital incident has descended into nothing more than a fun (maybe) story and a catchy (possibly) opening line for a blog entry. The eye pain is long gone. But the good feeling remains.