The Impulse To Do Good

Posted on November 13, 2013

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“The impulse to do good,” an English author wrote, “leads one to glorify the giver and forget the giving.” (I read a lot of English authors when I was college-aged and remember bits and pieces of what they wrote but not who penned them. Sometimes what I remember probably is not exactly what they wrote but attributing quotes to English authors evokes visions of genial, bearded, affluent Londoners whose veracity is difficult to deny.)
Glorifying the giver particularly is true of philanthropic organizations. They bear the names of those who founded them (often as an alternative to paying taxes) and furnish skyscraper offices with lake-view windows, instant messenger and business school graduates. As a journalist who skittered back and forth from magazine and newspaper jobs to freelancing and stints as an accountant, stat typist and bartender I seldom bumped into these exalted givers. But when I did it was on the tail end of the philanthropic experience.
The tail end, literally. The Asilo de Ancianos (“old folks home”) on a rock-strewn back street in La Paz, Baja California, Mexico is connected to Chicago skyscrapers and business school graduates by the thinnest of threads. For several years I was that thread. A gringo (although a journalism graduate from a Mexican university that I attended on the G.I. bill) I represented several so-called (philanthropic?) “service clubs” on the Mexican board of directors of the Asilo. (“Service clubs” do not bear the name of those who founded them but have names like “Rotary,” “Lions,” etc. and their members call themselves “Rotarians, Lions” and address each other by comical nicknames.)
The Asilo, unfortunately, was poorly funded. The Asilo, in fact, was hardly funded at all. That’s where the service clubs were supposed to fit in. As far as the comically nicknamed members of the service clubs were concerned they did fit it: i.e., after much hemming and hawing, joke telling and patio parties they diverted funds (called “grants”) obtained through a tedious process of petitioning, re-petitioning, amending, re-amending and verifying that their humanitarian efforts in fact were humanitarian and would reach humanity.
For me the Asilo was humanity: Forty-some weak, abandoned and near-death elderly who had no one except the Asilo to house them, feed them and care for them. The housing was a concrete walled semi-dungeon, the food what our board was able to beg, shame or scrape together from supermarket discards, bean wholesalers and local fishermen and the care was provided by tired and kindly minimum-wage-paid housekeepers and grandmothers.
But not for the philanthropic service clubs. Humanity for them was something to which a plaque (usually bronze) bearing the name of the giver could be attached. A kitchen, for example. Not a kitchen in the sense of potatoes, frijoles, vegetables, meat but a steel, aluminum and electric kitchen—with a plaque containing a dedication and the names and logos of the service clubs, a kitchen kept clean and spotless because the electricity was shut off and the propane low and because the old stove and battered pots were all that were needed to heat what food the Asilo could provide.
All too often, like the English author claimed, “The impulse to do good leads one to glorify the giver and forget the giving.”
Or maybe it wasn’t an English author. Maybe it was old and crippled Eugenia Aguilar in the Asilo. But if I write that she said it the quote will lack authenticity because like giver and gifts it is not what’s said but who is saying it that people believe.
I’m sure it was an English author. It’s just that I’ve forgotten his name.

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Posted in: Life in Mexico