This is not an opinion piece. Rather, it is an account of a situation that many of us will have experienced, which needs working out in writing.
Yesterday, as the sun warmed the limestone buildings of Bristol, and I breathed in the languid air of my home city one final time before packing up to head back to university, I was accosted by a blue-coated charity worker.
I had skirted one of her colleagues earlier, and was set on doing the same to her.
And so it was that, recognising the charity, I thought,
Right, I know what I’ll say! I’ll side-line this no problem.
So as I swung my body round hers with athletic vivacity, I mumbled something about having raised some money for their charity up at uni.
I know all about your charity, I thought, no need to speak to me about it.
The truth was, of course, that I was already taking a liberty here: I hadn’t ‘worked with’ their charity. It had come to my college and I hadn’t even attended the event.
I was not, unsurprisingly, successful with my guileless strategy, and before I knew it, I was stumblingly recounting exactly what I had[n’t] done up at uni, my brain working fictive overtime. And it was probably the guilt I felt about these white-lies, as well as the realisation that I didn’t really know anything about the charity that made me foolishly conclude:
Yeah, but, you know, I’m not exactly, completely sure I quite know what you guys, and you your team, like, do nationally, or… – do you work internationally by the way?
No, we don’t. She replied
And that was it. Over the next 10 minutes I was given statistics that honestly surprised me. I was given pictures that deeply touched me. But I knew – oh I knew – that sooner or later, with that tablet clutched close to her, she would soon spring it on me.
And so it was. While I was still preparing an immaculate, irrefutable get-out clause, she did it:
Would you say (she begins), that you spend just a bit of money every week on something you don’t really need?
I don’t even pause. I’m ready.
Yes, course I do (thinking that my pragmatic honesty would somehow excuse me)
What would that be on for you? A cup of coffee? A pint?
Yeah, a cup of coffee probably.
Well, what we’re asking is that you redirect that money to help out a really great cause. We just need to fill out this 30 second form, and you can walk away from here feeling empowered, with your head held high.
There we go. I knew it, I congratulated myself, deeply inhaling, raising my left eyebrow, and partially turning to an imaginary companion who wasn’t there. We had got to the crux of the matter. Now it was just a case of saying no. Firmly.
But something had happened during our long conversation. For some reason, the coffee thing had got to me this time. I began to think, maybe, just maybe, I should do this. Because, hey, I go on about charities enough, I even say to myself, I’m going to give 10% of my income to charity – when I start earning that is. What better opportunity that this to put words into deeds. And so it was that I began to seriously try to allay the few remaining doubts that brooded in my head whilst she, tablet poised, began to ask for my details, coaxing me with:
Just do it. We’ll send you updates, pictures, you can even choose where you’d like your money to go. This is a great thing you’re doing.
And in my head, two voices start chattering away:
Charity Devil: Hey! Jacob! What the hell do you think you’re doing!? You don’t earn money! Yeah you may have a bit of cash in bank at-the-moment, but just think back to the summer… boy was it looking red then…
Charity Angel: Oh come off it. How about that £30 a week you get? £2.30 wouldn’t even be 10%. That’s not even to mention the fact that, lo and behold, the 21st century has given you humans online banking. Just keep an eye on it, that’s all you have to do. Easy.
CD: But what about this ‘direct debit’ idea. Bit of a cop out if you ask you. If you’re going to be charitable, at least be so consciously.
CA: Better than doing nothing at all though…
CD: Alright, alright. But is this really the charity you want to give money to?
CA: Charity is charity. And this one is honest, local, and 92% goes straight to help out. That’s a pretty great statistic. Besides, charity starts at home. Help out abroad, yes, but domestic charities are important. Less embezzlement, greater direct impact.
One of these voices (and if records are correct, it was that sly, mean old Charity Devil) eventually plucked up the courage to say out loud:
Can you give me an hour or so to think about it? I know everyone says this, but I really, really, reeeally will come back. I just need to, you know, think about it.
What do you need to think about? Just fire any questions you have at me.
No, it’s not that, you’ve been really helpful, it’s just… Well… You’ve really brought me round to giving money, but now, well, I’m not sure if, were I to set up direct debit, I would choose your charity over another one…
Ouch. Thankfully, I don’t think she quite got what I meant.
I changed tack:
I’m sorry, you’ve really met the most indecisive person in the world.
Oh no I haven’t. I’m the most indecisive person in the world. But from one indecisive person to another, I can assure you that this will make you feel sooo good!
She handed me the photos again. I looked, awwh-ed, and thought to myself, Come on, this isn’t a question about affording it, at the same time as I calculated ([£2.30 X 52] X 2) in my head.
By this time, we had gone right past the trying to get away. Right past the information barraging. Right past the, No, I don’t think I will today. Goodbye. By this point I was seriously beginning to feel bad for taking up so much of her time.
I apologise to her for this.
No, don’t worry mate, I’m here to speak to people just like you. To inspire you.
Oh right, yeah. Well, you have. You’ve really inspired me. Really. I’m going to give money…
GREAT! What’s your…
…but I’m still not sure whether this charity is the one… Can you give me that hour?
The longer you stay. The harder extracting yourself becomes. I kept thinking, if only it was the Red Cross. If only it was Amnesty. In fact, if only it was any other charity… that charity I’d give money to without thinking about it…
I was shocked at myself, making arbitrary judgements about the relative worth of different charities – ones for poverty, blindness, human rights, welfare – to spend my measly £2.30 a week on.
Please, I really need an hour. Are you going to be here later today still? I literally mean I’ll come. I promise. I’m really keen to do this.
Ok, if I really can’t persuade you to sign up now, then, I’m here until 5, although I may be on a break at some point. Tell you what, it’s 2:37 at the moment, see you at 3:40?
For sure! See you then! You’ve been really inspiring. Thanks so much.
Sweat was dripping off my back as the sun bathed the limestone buildings of Bristol. Two voices in my head kept arguing as I turned into a retail unit not 100m from the girl. I left quickly, fearing her condemning, charitable eyes on my browsing, hypocritical, sweaty back.
My head was full of all the fabricated questions, the ethical dilemmas and the economic calculations of my pitiable situation. And as these clouded my mind, it was only with good luck that I escaped the long-reaching necks of Amnesty officials on my left, and the engulfing Charybdis of Medecins Sans Frontieres on my right.
I finally sought solace on the sunlit balcony of a riverside restaurant, ordered Split Pea & Wild Mushroom Paté served on Sourdough Toast, and breathed a sigh of relief.
As 3:40 struck, I turned off my iPhone. Sat back. And started to enjoy the new Italian feature film in Screen Three.