Compassion Fatigue

What makes one person designate Habitat for Humanity, Wounded Veterans and the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund as beneficiaries of her financial largess, and another choose Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Greenpeace and The Make A Wish Foundation?  What does it say about us when we “get tired” of giving to certain causes, like AIDS and swear our monetary allegiance to a charity that’s sexier now, like celebrity-touted Darfur?  And what does our vulnerability to whim, marketing and timing reveal about the goodness in our souls?

I started thinking about all this after receiving my tenth set of self-addressed mailing labels. A few years back when I got my first batch, I thought it was a great idea. What a nifty time saver, especially at bill paying time.  I promptly wrote out a check to the charity that sent them. Then came the calendars… and note cards… then the nickels and the dimes… and recently, the colorful tote bags. After being so gifted again and again, I began to feel uncomfortable. The goal seemed designed to make me feel too guilty to use them if I didn’t contribute… and no better if I threw them away. If there are two things in the world I cross the street to avoid, they are waste and guilt. Plus, giving me something before I had a chance to unselfishly donate to them, negated any feelings of altruism I might derive from being charitable.

When I grew up, contributing to a good cause was a much more straightforward affair. We supported the Girl Scouts, proudly displayed Easter seals on back of our mail, and gave to The American Cancer Society. Our reward was not an umbrella from public TV or a percentage of our credit card expenditures earmarked for good, it was that soul-nourishing, I’m-accruing-frequent-flier-miles-to-heaven sensation we felt when we pledged money to an exhausted, teary, Jerry Lewis.

Today it feels like a million more things need our help than they used to. The rainforest is disappearing, Haiti still suffers from unspeakable conditions, and each different cancer must fund its own specific research. People in your zip code go to sleep hungry, and kids are being educationally deprived, emotionally ignored and physically battered, probably within a few miles from where you live.

In the past two weeks I’ve been asked to renew my yearly membership /pledge/ donation to three different organizations after only six months. That’s by mail. By phone, despite having enrolled in the state’s Do Not Call registry, I am bombarded by at least a dozen fundraising calls a week from Brodnax, Virginia, Las Lunas, New Mexico, Gary, Indiana and Metuchen, New Jersey.  I realize these charities are all deserving, but taking advantage of my bad memory by employing skillful, high-priced wheedlers to separate me from my money, removes any trace of the positive high which usually accompanies doing good. And knowing once I give, I’m on a list for life, probably to be sold to a dozen other charities, I feel had, an easy mark, whose twenty dollars is probably paying for the smooth talking telemarketer I couldn’t refuse.

I’ve always believed that one of the simplest ways to judge a person’s worth, along with how he talks to a waitress and how comfortable he is around children, is how charitable he is. For those of us who don’t attend many balls and benefits and who aren’t especially concerned with tax write-offs, we give to acknowledge that there but for the grace of God, go I. We give to set an example for our children. We give to feel deserving of our good fortune. I’m trying hard not to let the hard sell rob me of those rewards.

Marcia Byalick

Marcia Byalick

Marcia's written three novels, three self-help books and dozens of essays for women’s magazines. She’s taught memoir writing, wrote for the Long Island section of The New York Times, and served as the content editor of beinggirl.com

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