Ice Bucket Challenge: A Few Thoughts

By now, you’ve probably heard of the ice bucket challenge so I’ll keep the background brief: A former Boston College baseball player named Pete Frates was diagnosed with ALS in 2012 and started a challenge among his friends to donate $100 to ALS research within 24 hours or dump a bucket of ice on their heads. Once they had completed the “challenge,” they were supposed to pass the task along to three friends. As the mainstream media likes to say, this challenge has gone “viral” and I can hardly scroll a two-fingered swipe down my Facebook feed without finding a video of folks in skimpy swimsuits, drenching themselves in frigid water.

So the posts have been piling up. Family members, friends, coworkers… And then, unsurprisingly, last week I found myself being “called” to the challenge. In a bout of serendipitous timing, my whole office got on board that same day and planned a massive group drenching to occur after work. But as I pondered joining in on the chilly escapade, something didn’t feel right. I couldn’t clearly articulate why I didn’t want to record myself dumping a bucket of ice water over my head, but I very firmly did not.

I knew my resistance had nothing to do with the two primary components of the challenge: 1) cold water and 2) ALS. After all, I can handle frigid water – not one week ago, I was plunging into icy waves at a beach in Maine. And I know how much ALS sucks – not from personal experiences, but from the experiences of a handful of patients I’ve treated who had lost the ability to speak and swallow, and were facing the horrifying inevitability of drowning in their own secretions or quite literally losing their breath. Yes, I’m already well aware of ALS and among the many terrible debilitating neurodegenerative diseases out there, it’s a real bastard.

I turned to the internet to help me better articulate my discomfort because if I’m feeling something, you can bet someone on this Earth has blogged about it. And whaddaya know? I quickly found an article all about the #icebucketchallenge and a new term called Slacktivism.

“The whole thinking is that instead of actually donating money, you’re attributing your time and a social post in place of that donation. Basically, instead of donating $10 to Charity XYZ, slacktivism would have you create a Facebook Post about how much you care about Charity XYZ- generating immediate and heightened awareness but lacking any actual donations and long term impact.”

#IceBucketChallenge: Why You’re Not Really Helping by Ben Kosinski

And in some respects, that rang true. After all, the videos feel a bit… hollow. Dump water, record, upload post, tag three friends. I know the videos are doing some good – some people will Google ALS and find out a little more about it. Some will even throw some money at it. And that’s amazing! But many others are simply swept up in a trend they may not fully understand and will quickly forget.

I don’t want to judge these people. After all, I find myself a bit tired of being asked to give money at every turn. Why is it my responsibility or burden to fix the world? Why do I feel guilt when I don’t toss in $20 bucks and a sense of relief when I do? Am I really making any difference?

I’m not sure what the ice dumpers should be doing. It’s probably not my place to say. And even though I didn’t choose to get wet with a dozen of my coworkers, I know they already are doing the most wonderful thing: They are devoting their lives to a helping profession, battling illness and despair with their hard work and long nights and genuine caring for our patients and families. So if they feel like getting cold and wet at the end of a day of that, I certainly won’t stop them.

As with most bouts of seemingly irrational emotion, I think I’m hitting on something deeper in myself. And so I pose this question: How do we as caring, but limited humans balance our selfish goals and motivations and need for self care with a life of service to others? What is too little or too much or just enough? Is it spending time with loved ones or giving money to strangers? Sharing facts on facebook or dumping a bucket of ice? Does it matter if we give of ourselves every year, every month, every day? It’s a personal question and you have to answer it for yourself, because in the end, I think you only have to answer to yourself (and perhaps whatever deity you believe in).

So I challenge you, friends, readers (and spammers who keep commenting about Coach handbags): In the coming days of your life, how do you want to give of yourself to others? Answer that question for yourself, and then go do it.

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