By John Roach
Madison is a generous town. We are a generous people.
And surely there are many worthy causes.
But with those qualifiers, you still have to wonder if it is possible to suffer death by charity.
Doesn’t it seem that in the last ten years charities have increased exponentially in both numbers and their sophisticated ability to touch us with their message? That there are times when it feels like we are caught in a charity traffic jam? You could fill every day of your calendar with a charity walk, golf outing, dinner or auction.
You could easily have twenty pictures on your desk of yourself and buddies posing on the first tee with Clotty The Mascot In The Fight Against Blood Disease.
Of course each charity has value. In our family alone we have had cancer, Alzheimer’s, suicide and Parkinson’s victims. How can you not volunteer and donate to those charities?
And then there are worthy civic charities. The United Way, the Urban League, the Boys and Girls Club, the Catholic Multicultural Center are all powerful causes working to address the complicated issues of New Madison.
Don’t forget the arts. Overture, Madison Symphony Orchestra, the Children’s Museum and others like them do wonderful things to enrich our Madison Experience.
And how can you not hear the blare of the biggest band in the charity parade, the University of Wisconsin and its many areas of need from the Foundation to the American Family Children’s Hospital to the Alumni Association, Athletic Department and each and every school of study? And the marching band. With five Badger grads in our household, it is not unusual for us to get twenty touches per week from our alma mater, via direct mail, emails and phone calls. There are enough Bucky asks to make even a sane UW grad run through the streets manically singing "Varsity."
The culmination of this cascade of charities hit our household last spring when we had family members participating in two charity walks, and somewhere near Olbrich Park the two charity walks actually walked into each other. It was like the scene in Animal House where Stork, played by the late, great Doug Kenney, leads the marching band into the alley.
And we are not even rich.
Imagine how often wealthy Madison people get hit for charity. You see their names listed at most every event. The touches on them are constant. If you are a person of big means, how do you even have a conversation without thinking in the back of your mind, "OK. When are they going to ask me for money?" What does that do to your ability to simply talk to people as fellow human beings?
The big charities are big business, well-oiled marketing machines with full-time staffs armed with language and strategies that smartly communicate their need. They "friend raise" before they "fund raise." And they compete against each other, sometimes with great ferocity.
But when you are a guilt-riddled Catholic like myself, the charity asks become unbearable. When approached by any cause, from kidneys to veteran flights to cancerous breasts to epilepsy to gastrointestinal disorders to high school bands selling chocolate that I will never eat, there is a part of my soul that falls to its knees like Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler, and begins to wail, "I could have done so much more!"
Of course, that is what charities hope you will feel.
But I take comfort in the words of a good man and great fundraiser. I once asked him, "How in the hell do you sit across the table from someone and ask them for a million dollars?" He smiled wisely and responded "Ah, John. I don’t ask them for anything. I offer them redemption." I don’t know why, but those words are comforting, as if we are free to seek our redemption, rather than have it imposed on us by the so many well-intentioned but overwhelming asks.
And still, I cannot say no to a charity without feeling selfish and awful and miserable.
Until the day I can reject the Vericose Vein Society sans angst, I will comfort myself with another quote from Schindler’s List. This one spoken by Ben Kingsley’s character as he hands Oskar Schindler a ring crafted by the Jews he saved.
On the ring is a quote from the Talmud.
"He who saves one life saves the world entire."
That’s a good quote.
As much about faith and hope as it is about charity.
Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more of John Roach's columns here.