Charity and Shopping Bags by Todd Hasak-Lowy

Todd Hasak-Lowy
October 4, 2011
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One of my most significant possessions is my credit card debt.  It’s not just mine, actually, it’s my wife’s, too.  And perhaps our kids’ as well.

But nevertheless I do still make a donation on a regular basis.  A few times a week actually.  Here’s what happens:

Setting: Whole Foods, check out line

Cashier: Would you like to receive credit for your bag or donate it?

Me (Trying to block out the painfully long, ongoing debate I have in my head over Whole Foods’ ethical character, which has something to do with their high prices and/but the way they appear to give me a chance to buy food that won’t clearly make the world a worse place and/but that they prey on my sensitivity to this as they simultaneously dangle all sorts of enticing goodies in front me because they know that I really like buying things, that, in other words, going to Whole Foods involves giving into both altruistic and materialistic impulses): Uh, donate.

Cashier: Thank you.

I almost feel magnanimous in that moment.  But mostly I feel some shame, because that’s pretty much it, as far as donations go.

But then again, how bad should I feel?  I’m a smart, hard-working guy, and I could have made a load of money had I elected to pursue any one of a number of careers that pay truckloads of money.  Then I would have had money to give to others.  But then I also concluded, before I was twenty, that just about all those jobs—in addition to being soul-draining—make the world a less good place, and so even generous donations made possible by holding such a job might be undermined or even negated by the work itself.

I still believe this more than I don’t.

By the way, the biggest fight I ever witness between my wife (who also makes a lot less money than she could, and, in fact, works at an educational non-profit that works with inner city children, for the love of God) and her mother involved a disagreement about money, in particular the pros and cons of making a lot in order to give a bunch vs. making a little but getting paid to do social justice work.  You can probably guess which side of the argument my wife was on.  As well as who picked up the tab for dinner.

What I may be asking here is: does doing work that itself might make the world better excuse you from making donations of another sort?

And, while we’re at, does being an academic and a writer count as work that itself might make the world better?

Please say yes.

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Todd Hasak-Lowy is a writer, scholar, and translator. He has a PhD in comparative literature from UC Berkeley. He is the author of a short story collection, a novel, and an academic monograph. He lives in Evanston with his family and teaches creative writing and modern Hebrew literature in and around Chicago.

1 Comment

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