secret asshat syndrome

“What are we looking for when we donate/volunteer?”

I’ve found that this is a hard, hard question to ask. Because it presumes we’re looking for something for ourselves in the exchange, and the answer may put us on the defensive/feeling vulnerable since it gets to the core of who we are inside + how we relate to & view other people of different socioeconomic classes/backgrounds, etc.

Obviously, depending on who you’re talking to, this question gets different reactions. Jean Valjean from Les Miserables might be looking for redemption. For one girl I met a few weeks ago, who survived the Darfur genocide and founded a nonprofit, she is looking to be a part of a bigger fight for justice, protection, and opportunity. Another guy I met at that same conference who works in advocacy is at least partially fueled by a desire for security- that what happened to his grandfather at Auschwitz won’t happen to his grandkids. Many of various belief systems do this in search of salvation, or as an expression of gratitude for their salvation. And others: moral urgency, a desire to seek purpose, a sense of knowing that we are a speck in the universe (#damndaniel is probably more famous than you at the moment), reminded daily by the billions on the Internet, and we want to feel we’ve done something impactful in our lives by the time we die. So, tons of reasons. Your answer strongly influences (obviously) the way in which you approach helping others.

This is the part of my post where it gets less ‘feel good’ –

Anthropologists and humanitarians have stressed this question “why are you doing __” & cautioned others to think about the very typical, human desire to be viewed as morally good – because this can turn scary and really ugly when that becomes a priority OVER really serving. 

» Example 1: Me. I sometimes volunteer at a soup kitchen & food pantry, and one role is to collect signatures as people finish up eating and walk towards the exit, where they can pick up groceries to take home. The signatures are for grant $$ application purposes, to show that the soup kitchen actually used the $$ to feed ## people v.s. being a dipshit and pocketing it elsewhere.

Not everyone wants to sign this. They might feel embarrassed, or distrustful when we explain the purpose of the signatures/clipboards. I think if it was me, I’d likely use a fake name. I’ve seen a volunteer argue when people were hostile about it or about the rule that you can’t take hot food out with you (part of soup kitchen license condition), and say “These are the rules, and you should be grateful we’re even here, and can’t you see we’re trying to help you? What’s wrong with you?” (for those wondering how that exchange ended, a volunteer supervisor quickly came over and reassured the person they didn’t have to sign if they didn’t feel comfortable.)

Ok, let’s back up a sec. This “you should be grateful” attitude is everywhere and the implication is along the lines of “you’re not following our rules because you’re not grateful because you are stupid and/or a terrible person who can’t appreciate what I’m trying to do.” We could go on and on. And it’s a 100% human reaction that sneaks up on you-  I found myself thinking this in my heart the following week when I got snapped at by someone, and then I was immediately horrified at how quickly I turned into That Secret Asshat (I’ve decided to call this SAH Syndrome – Secret Asshat Syndrome – because you probably look good to others on the outside), who was focused on what I wanted v.s. what others needed (dignity, understanding, patience, someone to vent to after a shitty week/s)- which is why I was even supposed to be there in the first place! This ugliness really sneaks up on you unless you actively try to fight this.

“Oh that wasn’t SO bad. Not great, but not terrible.” –

>> No, my friend. Example #2 of what happens when this attitude is left unchecked. Bigger crowd, bigger volunteers.

A big, well-known, respected int’l-humanitarian-organization-which-shall-not-be-named (I’m not out to dissuade donations unless I find instances of systematically terrible organizations) was distributing food aid to a bunch of people living in a camp. People were starving. They’d try what they could to get in line twice – clothing switch-outs, passing along ID cards, you name it.    SO, this org/volunteers had had enough, because they wanted to make sure food was distributed equally per person (ok, good intention) and they couldn’t get a perfectly consistent headcount, which affected paperwork/reports. what was the bright idea?

To drive into the camp past midnight when people are dead asleep, bang cowbells/blow whistles/flash flashlights and literally corral people into lines surrounded by aid workers on all sides, and count them all, flashlights blinding them, to really get that almighty accurate headcount. another instance even involved rounding people up and marking them very visibly with ink. OKAY PAUSE. There’s something very wrong with this picture that reminds me of a different kind of camp. I understand the need for the right #s, I really do, but how the hell did this headcount process not violate their dignity, which is a fundamental need that’s probably already been messed with before they got to these camps? honestly, if I had to get food for my malnourished mom and dad, you can bet your ass I’d try a clothing switch to get more food if there was a chance. And with that perspective in mind, while recognizing the need for rules/difficulty of enforcing, I can’t buy that there were no better alternatives in mind than rounding people up randomly at 2AM. It’s a matter of priorities – rules are important, but the people we serve should come before that.


I happen to be reading Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” right now- and I came across this section that hit me in the gut:

After reading the verses to the accompaniment of a few Amens he said, “First Corinthians tells me, ‘Even if I have the tongue of men and of angels and have not charity, I am as nothing. Even if I give all my clothes to the poor and have not charity, I am as nothing. Even if I give my body to be burned and have not charity it availeth me nothing. Burned, I say, and have not charity, it availeth nothing.’ I have to ask myself, what is this thing called Charity? If good deeds are not charity– “

The church gave in quickly. “That’s right, Lord.” “-if giving my flesh and blood is not charity?”: “Yes, Lord.” “I have to ask myself what is this charity they talking so much about.” I had never heard a preacher jump into the muscle of his sermon so quickly. Already the humming pitch had risen in the church, and those who knew had popped their eyes in anticipation of the coming excitement. Momma sat tree-trunk still, but she had balled her handkerchief in her hand and only the corner, which I had embroidered, stuck out.

“As I understanding it, charity vaunteth not itself. Is not puffed up.” He blew himself up with a deep breath to give us the picture of what Charity was not. “Charity don’t go around saying ‘I give you food and I give you clothes and by rights you ought to thank me […] Charity don’t say, ‘Because I give you a job, you got to bend your knee to me.’” The church was rocking with each phrase. “It don’t say, ‘Because I pays you what you due, you got to call me master.’ It don’t ask me to humble myself and belittle myself. That ain’t what Charity is. […] It don’t want nothing for itself. It don’t want to be bossman…It don’t want to be headman…It don’t want to be foreman…”

“[…] And now I repeat the words of the Apostle Paul, and ‘now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity.’”

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