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Comment: Giving is best with personal connection

Dec 07 2012

This week in adorable, a book elf has made itself a home at one of Victoria's most popular used-book stores. An anonymous bibliophile has taken to slipping $5 bills into her or his favourite books, along with a little holiday message, to bring down the cost of the book and hopefully put a smile on the future owner's face.

We can imagine what a pleasant sensation it must be to pick up a book that looks intriguing, to find a note saying, "Yes! I loved it and you will too!" along with a gift to help you on your way.

It's a story of a book-lover helping fellow book-lovers, and it's charming.

But the story doesn't end there, because that store is just up the street from the corner of Fort and Douglas, and on that corner - where I, like many Victorians, bank and shop and wait for the bus - it's rare not to see a person panhandling.

This geographical context is important, because it says a lot about what's important to us when we do someone a kindness, or when we choose to give. Without knowing the anonymous bibliophile, it's clear that she or he is operating on the principle of commonality: "I like books, and I like this book specifically, and you picked up this book because you thought it looked interesting, so I want to subsidize your enjoyment of it! Merry Christmas!"

It's the common interest between the two strangers that makes this random act of kindness so appealing.

I also suggest that it's a (perceived) lack of commonality that prevents us from feeling the same when we give money to a panhandler. We don't know what they'll do with that five bucks, after all - what do we know about them, that we can trust them? What do we have in common? The assumption, I think, is very little.

In London, a homeless advocacy group called The Passage is using this assumption as fuel for its campaign. Volunteers panhandle on behalf of the homeless while wearing signs such as "I eat well. I sleep well. I'm collecting for someone who doesn't. "

The intent, writes Joe Berkowitz, is to jar people out of their complacency: "While at first glance, the jaded city dweller might walk right by and ignore the sign, perhaps those who look closer will be moved by this clever appeal."

The strategy is clever, but it also highlights the fact that we are more comfortable giving to a person who is doing something for a homeless person than giving to a homeless person directly; we react more positively to someone doing something charitable than a person who needs charity.

There are many reasons for this, but part of it has something to do with the nature of charity itself, which is structured according to a top-down model of distribution: I have some-thing, and I give it to you, who have nothing. Charity, especially face-to-face charity, cements us in that alienating vertical relationship of giver and recipient. Top-down donations can reinforce our differences rather than encouraging us to see beyond them.

Gift-giving, on the other hand, embraces the things we have in common.

The exchange of property in the book-elf story happens on the horizontal axis, rather than the vertical. There are no awkward power imbalances to confront, just a thoughtful, selfless gesture from one book-lover to another.

And so, in keeping with this spirit, I'm glad to see that the Victoria Cool Aid Society is once again partnering with the Homeless Partners Christmas Wish List program. Through this program, the 100-plus residents of three local shelters will have the chance to tell their stories and post their Christmas wish lists at www.homelesspartners.com. Victorians can browse the site and send people messages or gifts.

While drawing a distinction between gift-giving and charity is a tad arbitrary, I think it's also a valuable reminder that people who are homeless are unique individuals with specific needs.

Just as the book elf is reaching out to people on the grounds of common interest, we can make a personal connection with someone who would appreciate it.

I encourage people to check out the website and read the wish lists.

You might have more in common with them than you think.

shannon.corregan@gmail.com

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