Thursday, September 18, 2014

Kindness and the Information Age

 In light of the recent ALS Ice Bucket Challenge craze, Charles Siboto examines a new age of kindness and how you can be effective in making the world a better place.

Recently a friend challenged me to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and this got me thinking about how everyone can do something around them to make the world a brighter place. I won’t lie, I’d never heard of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) before seeing all the videos of people pouring buckets of ice-cold water over their heads on my social media feeds. You’d think I’d know that Stephen Hawking suffers from ALS at least, but nope, total ignorance on my part. ALS is a disease very far removed from my centre of attention.

The people behind the Ice Bucket Challenge, the ALS Association, are looking to create a world without ALS. This, of course, requires money for researching cures for the disease and supporting people already living with it and affected by it. This is a noble cause and they used the power of social media to come up with a fun way to raise the funds they need for this good work. I commend this and it’s great to see a charitable drive gain so much momentum and create a stir. This is the sort of cause that people should donate money to or invest some of their time in whether they do it with a video or not. But you should always know exactly what it is that you are supporting.

The interwebs are a vibrant place where people vehemently share their opinions and very soon memes were making the rounds that people are wasting water whilst many regions in the world don’t have enough drinking water. Many celebrity personalities also declined the challenge on the grounds that there are reports stating that the ALS Association is involved in animal testing. Both these points are valid: wasting water is foolish and supporting an organisation that runs tests for cures for diseases on animals is not something everyone can agree on (and that’s a whole different and important argument).

The former issue made me think of my beloved mother warning me not to waste food as a child because children in China are starving . . . but how would my not wasting the food ease their plight? I always thought. We live in South Africa and there were children starving in our neighbourhood that I could have given that food to. As far as animal testing is concerned, I don’t know whether the ALS Association is involved in this or not but it highlights the point that people shouldn’t blindly donate to organisations. As someone trying to ease the burden of other human beings, you must go a bit further than just giving money to an organisation and invest some of your time finding out whether it shares the same values as you. This is also another reason I like the idea of volunteering because it gives you a first-hand experience of work being done by charities and other such institutes.

I took up the Ice Bucket Challenge but I did not support the ALS Association because I felt that there are causes closer to me that I can focus on. The world is in dire need of a lot of cleverness to solve many of its issues. Children should not be starving in China, South Africa or anywhere else when there is more than enough food to go around. There are enough resources for everyone on our planet but the problem is access. Clever minds are needed to enable such access but kindness is also needed. I am intelligent but I doubt I will be figuring out how to solve the issue of a child in China’s hunger anytime soon (sorry, mom) but I sure can give a hungry child who is right down the road from me something to eat. I took up my Ice Bucket Challenge in a spirit of being kind to all my fellow humans and helping where I can. I love food and I am the sort of person who packs a lot of it for work and sport so I will pack just a few more sandwiches and fruit to give to people.

Giving sandwiches doesn’t solve the underlying problems though. I don’t have much money to give but I also don’t think that would help as much as me giving of my time. I love books and when I was growing up my family was poor (we’re only a little less so now) and stories were my refuge; they comforted me and taught me some wisdom. In addition to my grandmother and mother I was raised by stories and our local library was my second home. I can share that with children and will do so. I am privileged to work at the Children and Youth editorial office of one of South Africa’s largest publishing houses and to volunteer on the executive board (this is a whole lot less fancy than it sounds) of an organisation that seeks to get rid of the problem of illiteracy in South Africa. These are wonderful platforms from which to help nurture a hunger for learning in children and thus equip them with knowledge to support themselves as they grow older. I pledge my efforts and time to these ventures because that is a role I am most equipped to play in trying to make the world a better place.

I think most people are looking for opportunities to be kind but miss them in their daily lives because they think their acts of kindness may be too insignificant or they are daunted by the really large acts they really want to be doing. Look at all the opportunities on social media that are wasted! People will like and share the crap out of a status highlighting conflicts across the world and how we really should be doing something. Sometimes people even emotionally blackmail each other with posts about how you support something heinous like rape if you don’t share some picture. I hate stuff like that but it shows that people want to be kind, there is a spark of it albeit somewhat misguided. This whole Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon proves that social media can be a powerful tool to create awareness of issues and even to raise money for them but you still have to go out and be kind and generous in your daily life. Do small things for people and if you can, do big things. Just try and extend a helping hand whenever you can. That is my challenge to you.

The world is full of injustices like undernourishment, rape, murder, sexism, racism, corruption, war and many issues like disease and natural disasters. Lend your support wherever you can. You don’t have to be Superman or Wonder Woman (unless you can, then totally do that) but your small acts of kindness and even your cleverness can go a long way.