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Personal Essays

Photograph by Katy Warner

Give and Take

December is the season for taking: taking money from strangers; taking care to avoid crying on the phone. Holiday confessions from a charity call-center employee.

It’s like a drug. It will take everything you have, will tear you and your family apart; it will strip you down to a person you never thought you could ever become. It will refuse you credit, break up your marriage, and eat your children. And it won’t stop there.

Sometimes, as one of the many people I pretend to be, I call strangers and ask them to give money to charity. People feel better when they do this. Better than what, I can’t say, but certainly better than before. They get the high. They’re all buzzed. Delirious, they thank me again and again for continuing to save the lives of starving children, animals, the Great Unvaccinated, although I have already told them that I have never done anything for these causes. I couldn’t tell a white rhino from a polar bear, and I couldn’t locate the Horn of Africa if I was standing in Sudan holding a map of Ethiopia. I just work for the call center.

The people I speak to are all different, in different circumstances, in different places, of different ages. As far as I can tell the only thing they all have in common is the fact that they all give to charity. Some of them are giving to more than 4,000, or so they claim. “Of course,” I say. “You have to manage your Giving the way that’s best for you.” But they all want to do more. All of them. That’s the drug. You start off nice and easy, saving lives £2 at a time, but once you really realize how easy it is to save lives (just £2 a life!), it becomes harder and harder to draw any kind of line. A life! you think. For the price of a coffee! Take it all. I won’t be happy till it’s all gone. Next thing you know, your wife has left you and your debts are being managed by a social worker.

Oh, behind closed doors, where all the good stuff happens, people are bleeding themselves dry to the detriment of their households. “OK,” they say, “but don’t tell my husband. We decided we were going to stop, but I just don’t seem to be able to.” Followed by shrieks of nervous laughter. It seems they got into this thing innocently enough years ago, maybe at a party, and before they knew it, it had taken over their lives. Now they’re doing it in secret.

Suddenly it’s everywhere I look. Now my eyes have been opened, I see that people are Giving everything they can. “I’m giving everything I can,” they say. And then they give a bit more. They just can’t help themselves. These days, none of us has anything to give, not anything to speak of, anyway. And yet people keep Giving.

You start off nice and easy, saving lives £2 at a time, but once you really realize how easy it is to save lives (just £2 a life!), it becomes harder and harder to draw any kind of line. A life! you think. For the price of a coffee!

And they’re doing more than Giving, they’re also Caring. And Caring is even worse, because it gets to your insides quicker. It will rot your stomach, and it will turn your teeth into mush. People sometimes do one or the other: care without Giving, or give without Caring. “It’s not that I don’t care,” people say, when they can’t give, and I say, “It never is.” Some, a few steely veterans with guts of lead, old ladies who have been Giving or Caring since I was a baby, who gave through the ‘60s, when Giving was pure and uncut and sat in greasy paper bags on the kitchen table, they manage to do both. They frighten me.

If anything, Caring is even more prevalent than Giving. It’s everywhere. In the street, people give their leftovers to homeless people. They accompany strangers to the hospital. They share their packed lunches, their Kit-Kats and their Monster Munch. On the phone they tell me they’ve been to see their elderly neighbors who are stuck inside because of the snow. They’ve been out to clear the fields so the deer can run around. Sometimes you can’t even tell if someone’s doing it. Someone could be Caring about you right now, and you wouldn’t even know.

One freezing morning, on a crowded train, a young man stands up to let me sit down. I am not pregnant, I am not elderly, and I am as well able to stand as he is. I don’t fit any of the categories in the stick drawings under the “Please Give Up Your Seat” sign. We argue. “Sit down!” I say, looking absolutely nuts with my hair all over the place, pointing my finger of fury at the empty seat.

“Don’t be silly,” he says and points at the seat. The free seat. On a crowded train. He’s trying to be nice, trying to get some Giving in before work. (Or is this Caring? And which is worse?) Surely I could indulge him. So I sit, thinking, How bad could it be? and immediately I realize it’s very bad indeed. This is the opposite of Giving. Taking, even just someone else’s seat, is not something I am happy with at all. And now I have to sit here like this all the way to work!

He is judging me, not knowing what Taking has done to me. That it has subjected me to my own needs. That it has Taken my ability to Give, my ability to stand over anything else and Care about it.

I feel like nothing. I feel like a child. Staring at the back of the man’s head, I can’t help but think he knew this would happen and wonder at the cruelty of someone who would do this to me. But then I think, That poor sick bastard. Probably this is the only Giving he can get today. Or is this Caring? And which is worse? I am perched on the edge of the seat, trying to work out how angry I should be. Surely it’s understandable. People are weak after all, and most of them are addicted to more foolish things than this. The dirty looks from people in the carriage, the smirks and the rolled eyes that the other passengers are Giving me for free. He didn’t think about this. He was just feeding his need. And though I do feel wronged, having sat I don’t have a leg to stand on. I mean, do we really know who did what to whom? I certainly don’t. Something about a seat.

The train stops, and a man gets on. He is going to beg. I sit there and look through my book, conspicuously ignoring him. “I’m sorry to bother you, ladies and gentlemen,” he shouts down the carriage. “This is not how I want to spend my morning, either.” He asks for money, whatever you can spare, or maybe food if you have anything in your bag that you don’t want for lunch. “I smell awful,” he announces to the carriage. It’s true. He does. The man opposite me, holding a crutch with one hand, puts his other hand in his pocket and hands his coins to the beggar. He shakes his head as he does this, and I wonder if it is because of me; because I took without Giving. He is judging me, not knowing what Taking has done to me. That it has subjected me to my own needs. That it has Taken my ability to Give, my ability to stand over anything else and Care about it.

The man who is begging continues down the carriage and looks directly at people, seeming genuinely surprised that only one person out of the full carriage of passengers has given him anything. The man who gave me his seat is leaning against the Perspex beside me. I can see his back but nothing else. I wonder what he thinks of all this. The doors open and the beggar glances, hesitates. He looks like he wants to dive off the train. But he doesn’t. He is going to stick it out till the next stop. He wasn’t lying that this isn’t how he wanted to spend his morning. I wonder what he would give to be Giving up his seat for someone. The doors close and he calls out again. Because of course, Giving is easy. That’s why so many fall victim to it. Asking, Taking, these things are different.

I get to work, and a woman on the phone tells me she would love to help us more but she can’t. I say, “I understand; you’re probably doing everything you can.” “I am,” she says. And then she bursts into tears, not Caring what I think of her. She can’t Take it anymore.

This stuff will ruin you. It will take away everything you have. It will turn you into something completely different. It will make you into someone who cries with strangers on the phone in the middle of the afternoon.