Thursday, June 14, 2007

Virtue

Yesterday, a pint of blood was siphoned out of me by a needle/series of tubes (not the internets, though) and collected in a bag. Afterward, I ate some cheezits and drank some water, and it was all very routine, as if people do that sort of thing every day. Which, of course, some people do (not the same people every day though; they'd run out of blood pretty quick). After I'd finished my crackers I walked back to my cube and a couple of coworkers kind of gushed a little about how great it was that I give blood.

Honestly? It doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me. I have enough to spare, and I have the most common blood type (A+ baby) so my blood can be pretty useful. I've never spent any time in Africa and I've never lived in the UK and I've never taken Propecia and I've never had sex with a man who had sex with another man, even once, since 1977. So I'm all clear to give them my blood and they're all clear to give it to someone who really needs it.

I was thinking about the whole giving blood thing last night. I wonder, for example, if blood collected at altitude (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico) gets sent to other states because of the donators' high red blood cell count (you develop more red blood cells when you live at altitude because there's less oxygen, so the blood has to compensate and make more red blood cells to carry around the oxygen it can get). I was also thinking about this disease that I'd heard of where the cure is pretty much bloodletting because of a too-high iron count - maybe the one condition for which leeches actually worked way back in the dark ages. And I thought about all the blood I've donated over the years, and who might have gotten it - was it a trauma victim, exploratory surgery, someone with leukemia? Was it an old man or a little boy? Was it a woman who gave birth and hemmorhaged? It kind of blows my mind how much blood is needed every day in this country, how many people's lives are saved every year because people donate blood and platelets and bone marrow.

At the same time, to me, the whole giving blood thing is no big deal - I get a heavy arm for a day, a little itchy puncture wound, and I'm a cheap drunk for a night (only after a meal, of course). But to some people, it's an impossible hurdle because of a needle phobia or anemia or low body weight. I'm sure there are thousands of gay men in this country who are assuredly HIV negative and would love to donate but are denied the opportunity. So I guess in a way, I donate because other people can't - just as other people do things that I can't to help people in need.

Earlier this week, one of the most impressive outpourings of giving to a stranger I've ever seen happened on one of the message boards I read; a person had a sudden and unexpected financial hardship due to theft and was going to have a hard time keeping the electricity on for his family while the police sorted out the whole mess of the situation. Another person on the message board read the story (he'd written it just to vent) and took it upon HIMself to set up a paypal account and solicit small donations from the community, which he then transformed into a check and sent off to the guy in need. The guy was flabbergasted, touched, and (at first) unwilling to accept generosity, but eventually thanked everyone for what they had done for him and his family and promised to "pay it forward" once everything was fixed. I hadn't read anything about the situation or the thread saying "let's help this guy out" until the whole thing had already transpired, but I was amazed and humbled at the lengths to which small gestures can go to make a huge difference in someone's life. I highly doubt that anyone who contributed to the fund sent in more than they could afford - perhaps a week's worth of Starbucks or something equally minimal - but together, the community's resources made infinitely better a situation for the family of a stranger on the internet.

Both the acts described above - giving blood, donating money to someone in need, could be construed as acts of virtue. Our society has deemed virtuous the act of selflessly helping another person, whether that act be small or large. Is it more virtuous to donate time, money, blood, when it's a true hardship to the giver? Or is the mere act of giving a virtuous one, even if it affects the giver in a very minimal way? Should there be any level of judgement when it comes to virtue? Should people strive to donate money or time or bone marrow or a kidney because it's the right thing to do to help another human being? Or should that act be contingent on the rest of the community (coworkers, fellow message board users) knowing that one gave something? Does it really count if nobody else knows about it? I wonder sometimes about the little prizes given out for donating blood or voting (stickers, t-shirts), whether it really makes a difference in someone's decision to donate blood if they're promised a sticker afterward that they can wear and show people. The medical wrap stuff they use to wrap your arm after you donate always comes in bright colors (aqua, teal, purple) - I'm sure they make it in flesh tones, but then who would notice?

It's hard in this day and age of paparazzi and instant communications to know the motivations of celebrities who are doing good things - on the one hand, isn't it a great example they're showing for driving a hybrid or serving as a UN ambassador to a war-torn country? On the other hand, isn't it a little self-serving for every celebrity to have his or her own foundation or camp or charity (frequently with the celebrity's name, even)? Should the motivation even matter, as long as people are being helped and good works are being done? In the long run, I don't think it should. The money, the time, the blood are all there when people need it, and that's all that should really matter. So yes, world. I donated blood yesterday. Perhaps that makes me virtuous, even though I needed it less than someone else, and I walked away with an ugly t-shirt, and it didn't help keep someone's electricity on or save the children (but not the British children). I plan to do it again in 8 weeks when I'm eligible again. Because I can.

4 comments:

canadian sadie said...

As both a donation recipient, and a donor myself, I say thank you for doing something so small and so very important.

I think the virtue is in the act alone. It's not in the sacrifice, it's in the knowledge that something needs doing, you have it within your power to do that something, and you DO. You do it without question, without cajoling, and without need for recognition. You do it because you CAN. And you do it because it's the RIGHT THING TO DO.

Nobody who does something virtuous thinks they are...and that's the beauty of it. That's the very nature of virtue. You can't BE virtuous if you try. You just have to BE. (it's a lot like grace, that way!)

Anyway...I had an accident at 13, and took over 5 pints of donated blood. I've given that back in multiples, and my only regret are the times that my iron was low and I've been turned away. It's such a simple thing to do, with such far reaching repercussions...I can't imagine NOT donating. I can't imagine allowing a needle, a bruise, and the inconvenience of losing an hour of my day, to preclude me from giving something that I can, so freely.

Good post...thanks. Hopefully it will inspire someone ELSE to donate too.

Jane said...

I donate blood for much the same reason you do: it's not that big of a deal for me and it helps other people. Win/win.

Incidentally, my husband is being tested right now for the disease that causes excess iron (hemochromatosis) and requires bloodletting.

Cilicious said...

I agree that the virtue is in the act alone. I could drive myself nuts thinking about why people do good or bad things.
I try to avoid thinking too much about the motivation behind any good and helpful acts, mine or others, because the beauty of making a difference, whether difficult or easy, is that the act is indeed worthwhile in itself, as well as inspirational to others.
I've been turned down for blood donation as well, for one reason or another--I just try to be a positive force in whatever way I can.

Leah said...

Yes!

(I used to ponder the worth of an ill-intentioned good deed back when I saw people roll their eyes about having to do community service just to have something to put on their resumes. On the one hand, that's so selfish and cheap! But on the other hand, at least they're helping someone, even if they're doing it with a sneer, right?)