Scanlan, Lawrence. A YEAR of LIVING GENEROUSLY: Dispatches from Front Lines of Philanthropy. 2010. Douglas & McIntyre. Vancouver, BC.

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Quoted from Mahatma Gandhi in introduction to this book.

Every book I read something informs or interests me. This book by Scanlan has done far more; it has had a profound effect on my thinking & ultimately my life as a member of society.

“…the status quo stinks. Volunteers alone, magnanimous philanthropists alone, are not the answer.”

In 12 months the author volunteered at 12 different organizations in Canada and abroad – including St. Vincent de Paul lunch service, cancer hospice, horse riding for the disabled, teaching writing at a First nations school, an immigration centre, an environmental group, visits with his dog to the severely disabled and overseas at a HIV+ refuge for transvestites in Costa Rica, building a home in USA for a hurricane victim (and helping roof a home in Canada as well) and teaching media to a women´s group in Senegal. He came away from all these experiences with a sense of optimism. His darkest times were the months of working as a street person in Toronto and volunteering in jail. Prisons are a major industry in Scanlan´s home town, Kingston. In these accounts I was disturbed by his  expression of our society´s disregard and contempt for our most marginalized citizens.

Each of his month´s experiences is vividly described with compassion for his associates and respect for those whose whole lives are dedicated to helping others and helping society. It was not always easy to get accepted, four weeks is a short time and a volunteer who wants to write a book may seem to be more of a hindrance and voyeur than a genuine participant. Every time he worked with a group he was very careful about getting permission and respectful about the use of names. I felt that in his short stints he achieved a deep level of understanding and lasting respect for all those he met.

“The experience was far richer than I could have hoped for, and I would do it again.”

Scanlan goes well beyond description and narrative, fascinating as they are. He reflects in every chapter on the organization and people, he adds knowledge of other lives lived generously. He also poses many questions about the role of charity and aid in our society.

Is it perpetuating injustice? Does it help the helper more than the helped? Does feeling good compensate for the indignity suffered by those in need? Why do we help others? Is it for our own satisfaction, first and foremost? Locally, does our volunteerism and our donations let governments off the hook and help destroy the democratic universality of social programs? Is foreign aid enabling or disabling? When large (like the Gates Foundation) organizations privatize and fund vital needs, like disease research, are shut–out communities and governments disempowered and at the mercy of corporate thinking? As he writes, “Society has no say.”

These are some of the questions raised in the book. Scanlan does not answer them all – he leaves the reader to think about the ramifications of his reflections. He does not, however, recommend inaction, but rather urges us to act and think.

He recounts the story told in development circles of people seeing babies floating down a river; of course they jump into rescue them. That keeps people too busy to go upriver and find why babies are being thrown in the river.

“In the meantime, keep on volunteering, keep on giving. Do not stop, and in fact do more. Weave generosity into your daily life… Pressure politicians at every level–municipal, provincial and national– and join forces with those who advocate for the poor, those in your own community and those who are oceans away. Be less the avid consumer and more the engaged citizen. Show empathy as a volunteer, show passion as an activist. Get angry, get informed, go upriver.”

In the words of one of my great heroes, Kay Macpherson, “When in doubt, do both.”

Filed under Book Reviews, Lawrence Scanlan