To do well or to do good?

Charity“What are you raising money for?”

Two people asked that question after hearing about the all-day bike ride. I get where they’re coming from: it’s a cultural reflex. From walkathons to telethons to hackathons, we now understand that any quirky, marathon-like undertaking must be raising money for something. Otherwise why do it?

It’s kind of strange, though. Hobbies don’t prompt that response. Nor do projects involving obvious self-care or self-improvement. Nobody who heard you were at a day-long sitting meditation on Saturday would say: “What were you raising money for?” Nobody would think to ask an art student who spent the day at the Guggenheim with a sketch pad what charity she was supporting. In such cases the answer to “Why are you doing this?” is implicit. To get better. To grow.

But many Big Days (at least the ones on my long list) fall into a confusing grey area. They’re often hobby-like in the sense that they’re a choice, and there’s no commercial payoff — but they aren’t patently fun or restful. They’re challenging. They amount to voluntarily tightening the screws on yourself.

Do that quietly, privately, and you are a Stoic or a monk: nobody asks an ascetic what he’s raising money for. But as soon as you tell someone what you’re up to you’ve changed the equation. Your venture is now non-remunerative, challenging, and public. To you, going public may simply have been a trick to hold yourself accountable. But others will assume it’s to “raise awareness” of some noble project.

So should Big Days be in service of a “higher” cause?

I maintain there are no shoulds here.

Big Days devoted to work aren’t likely to be supporting a cause more high-minded than cutting your stress and putting food on your family’s table (and maybe advancing the greater good of the work you do). Big Days devoted to play may or may not be.

Look what has happened to marathons over the last 25 years. Yoking them to various causes has proven to be soul work and good business: it has raised billions of dollars for charity and research, and sharply increased participation in the bargain. But some veteran runners privately rue that the charity-ization of the marathons has de-legitimized distance running merely for the joyous hell of it. (The CBC sketch-comedy outfit The Irrelevant Show did a great sendup of all this. In 490 B.C., Pheidippides comes staggering into Athens with news of a victory in Marathon. But before he can get a word out someone asks him, “Who were you running for?”)

“The sheer difficulty of running a marathon gives it the “I could never do that” cachet that attracts donors,” a long feature in Runner’s World put it recently. “In asking, and in donating, they affirm the cultural consensus that anything difficult is worth doing only for money.”

You’re going to be mighty tempted to attach a “cause marketing” dimension to your Big Days. Not only is it guaranteed to drum up interest and sympathy, it feels on a lot of levels like the right thing to do. I’m not saying we should resist that impulse, necessarily, just examine it.

Indeed, it’s very possible that the more Big Days we log, the more we find we have filled the well personally, the more we will naturally want to devote a greater proportion of Big Days, directly or indirectly, to The Village. (You run your first marathon for you; after that you’re doing it for others. So goes one line of thinking.)

Many Big Days that start as personal challenges might well bloom into common-good enterprises.

For example: Say that, in the midst of undertaking Big Day number 15 – “See how far you can go under your own power” – as a walking journey, you set out toward the next small town, some 80 km away. Six hours in, as you start feeling the distance in your hips and your knees, your mind drifts to people who do this not for fun but because they have no choice: those Syrian refugees trudging along the shoulder of the E-60 highway out of Budapest, bound for Munich. What does it feel like to walk all day under those circumstances, with everything you own on your back? The Big Day becomes a kind of empathy engine, and next thing you know you’re sponsoring a walkathon to raise money for the UN Refugee Agency.

So it starts with the impulse to explore. Which grows into the impulse to understand. And soon you are spreading the circle of consideration so wide that not a single person is left out of it.

That’s one scenario. I’m curious to see if that’s the way Big Days evolve.

But for now I’m hanging on to this notion that there are no I shoulds to Big Days.

Only I get tos.

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