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Why Do We Give?

No matter how questionable the cause, people continue to invest in others, perhaps because to invest in a cause -- no matter how small -- is to invest in humanity.
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I won't bore you with details of the Invisible Children's campaign to bring an end to Joseph Kony's reign of terror. The most viral video in the history of viral videos, the 30-minute-long "KONY 2012" has garnered approximately 90 million views and counting, and if you're reading this on the Internet now, you will have surely seen it or at least heard of it. The Kony campaign, at first met with waves of immediate support in the form of retweets, reblogs, and shares, soon faced much opposition coming from several different angles that had the effect of significantly slowing down its original speedy success. Majority opposition stated that the video was misleading and/or that Invisible Children wasn't honest about where the money from the donations they were receiving was going (many argued that although Invisible Children made it seem as though the money was going straight to Africa to help with the cause, it wasn't; much of it went into making further videos, paying those who made the videos, etc). Matters were made much worse when Jason Russell, director and star of "KONY 2012," was spotted nude in public. Perhaps it was a combination of these factors and more that rendered "Cover the Night," the next step of the Invisible Children's campaign, something of a flop. Needless to say, the night was hardly covered -- although Invisible Children had surely reached their goal of "Making Kony Famous," too much controversy eventually surrounded the campaign for that particular part of their plan to go through. The audience had given all that they would, and then condemned the cause as unworthy.

I pondered this as I rode the New York City subway for the first time in months, on break from college, but my thoughts were interrupted by a beggar's speech as he walked through the subway, hat containing jingling coins in hand.

"Good evening, ladies and gentleman. I am homeless. I am poor. I am looking for help. If you could find it in your hearts to spare some change, even a penny, I would be very grateful. Have a blessed day. God bless you all," he said repeatedly as he walked up and down the train car.

People and speeches like these are commonplace in the dark underworld of the New York City subway system, and I hardly spared the man a second glance. The people I did look at, however, were those shelving out money.

Why are they giving him money? I thought heartlessly. Dressed in sneakers, jeans, a t-shirt, and wearing a black JanSport backpack that could have contained anything, these people could hardly know whether he was at all a worthy cause for their spare change and crinkled dollar bills. They had no way of knowing what their money would be spent on, and yet they still gave it away to this man who they would never see again, a man who walked in and out of their lives just as quickly as he did each subway car that day. So why did they do it? Why did they give?

Why does anyone give? Perhaps, in terms of cost, it isn't fair to compare spare change given to a subway beggar to the sizeable donations the Kony 2012 campaign was able to reign in, but consider the entirety of the NYC subway system. Hundreds of trains, millions of passengers, and tons of spare change are being given away on an hourly basis to causes infinitely more ambiguous than that of Invisible Children. And yet, no matter how questionable the cause, people continue to invest in others, on both small and grand scales, perhaps because to invest in a cause -- no matter how small -- is to invest in humanity. People want to believe that they can make a difference in the lives of others through acts of selflessness -- and in giving away money, they are making an investment in the hopes that the human race won't lose what is left of its purity and its goodness; that those who take this money will use it for good rather than evil. Realists may scoff at this notion, but I would argue that it is precisely what lies at the core of much of our actions as human beings, and will for centuries to come -- as long as we don't lose faith in each other.

This is not to say that people should blindly support endeavors they know nothing about, but it is to say that they shouldn't condemn them either, because to do so may be to condemn our collective future. It is not for me to decide whether or not Kony 2012 or the man I witnessed begging on the subway are worthy causes, but it is my duty, as well as everyone else's, to at least learn about them and give them a chance.