Does Speaker's Corner still exist in London's Hyde Park? When I was a teenager in the early 70s, our family lived in Europe, and seeing a young man atop a soapbox holding court with an audience of Londoners left a strong impression.
So, today, I want to use this column as my virtual soapbox. To share an idea that is just taking shape in me. And to hear your thoughts in reply.
The notion that "charity is dead" has been brewing for some time. On Earth Day (April 22), I remembered something an uber-green friend once said when we were talking about garbage, "There is no 'away'." That is, when we say of things we no longer want, "Oh, I'll just throw it away," we aren't really thinking about what happens to the stuff. It's now abundantly clear that that attitude created a huge problem - from overflowing landfills to the floating plastic island in the south Pacific.
Here's another piece of the puzzle that I'm struggling to put into place. In recent weeks, I've worked with and interviewed some remarkable people who have chosen careers in the non-profit sector. And from each of them I heard - perhaps for the first time, really heard - how they spend much of their time. Not, as we might imagine, helping people in need. Instead, they constantly do a desperate dance designed to attract the attention of people like you and me. So that they can raise awareness of their work. And the money they need to keep going.
Something is wrong with this picture.
What if we took the environmentalist's "There is no 'away'" and extended it in all directions? What if we started to say (as a first step toward figuring out how), "There is no 'other'"?
What if, I wondered, non-profits weren't charities at all - what if they didn't have to depend on catching our eye in order to continue their work? What if the world's poor didn't have to wonder if those of us fortunate enough to have been born into a place of privilege on this shared planet would ever turn our hearts and minds in their direction? What if the act of giving didn't have to please us first? Or what if we didn't think of it as "giving" in the first place? Might "sharing" be a better word?
Important steps in this direction are being taken, of course. Social entrepreneurs are a prime example. They've discovered that it's better to use what they know to help the world's poor start businesses than it is to give them hand-outs.
But surely, surely, this is just the beginning.
I've always loved Henry Kissinger's wry line, "There cannot be a crisis this week, my schedule is already full." And now I wonder if it doesn't sum up what ails us. We've got full lives, and many of us are running hard to just stay in place. We believe that we don't have anything left to give.
Charity isn't really dead, of course, but I think it's on its last legs. And I'm looking for a path that will lead us out of our cramped habit of self preoccupation and into a greater world of fellowship with all human beings. One that embeds helping others into all of our institutions and our daily lives. And I know that I'm not alone.
I'm already looking for examples of this next generation of New Radicals, and will write about them as they appear on my radar. But in the meantime, what do you think? Do you agree with the idea, "There is no 'other'"? And how might we actually get there from here?