Charity and Magical Thinking

not all help is helpfulOne definition of Magical Thinking is: “merely thinking about an event in the external world can cause it to occur.”

Personally, in some cases it also seems to result in the belief that merely thinking about it means it actually *did* occur.  Somebody says, “Yes, I will do that for you,” and then they never do, but they are rather put out that you hold them to it and point out it never happened.  Somehow, this is grudge-holding, but their oath-breaking is just one of things that could happen to anybody.

They are invested in thinking highly of themselves, in feeling good about themselves and about their interactions with others- so they promise more than they can deliver, thinking the promise is what counts.

IT happens with a good deal of charity related issues, too-  thinking about it, voting to force other people to be charitable on your behalf, and engaging in truly ineffective or even counterproductive therapy actually mean that meaningful, useful charitable acts occurred.  In this kind of magical thinking, criticizing ‘charitable’ acts that aren’t helpful, that are counterproductive somehow becomes *bad* thinking.


Economics emphasizes the unintended and unseen consequences of different actions. Suppose you could feed two hungry children with the same effort you’re currently using to feed one. Would you want to know how?

Some people really wouldn’t.

I think that if we’re really honest with ourselves a lot of our charitable endeavors have less to do helping the least of these among us than with showing that we’re the kind of people who care about the least of these among us.

Intending to help people isn’t the same as actually helping people. Good intentions and a few dollars will get you a cup of coffee, if you’re lucky: “good intentions” channeled through pathological institutions might leave you saddled with a body count. In one of the most provocative books I read this year, Timothy Keller explains how Generous Justice is more than just giving stuff away. It’s a lifestyle decision that requires getting meaningfully involved in the lives of others. Over the long run, this is likely to be far more effective than simply bunching all of our benevolence into a few frenzied weeks.

As a mentor has told me, economics shows us that it is very difficult to be charitable in ways that actually benefit the people we’re trying to help. Some people might find this sad–dismal, even. I actually think it’s kind of liberating because it suggests that–at the risk of being dramatic–a better world is possible. A new paradigm for charity and justice will require a lot of thinking outside the donation box. With Christmas 2011 and a brand new year right around the corner, it’s a challenge I look forward to meeting head-on.

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