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Good Letters

When NBC announces their prime-time schedule for the fall next month, the lineup may or may not include a show called “The Philanthropist,” on which I will be a writer if it airs. The character in question is a fortysomething Wall Street billionaire who, dissatisfied with checkbook charity, initiates his own one-man humanitarian missions from Africa to Asia and Middle America.

He also happens to be a Dionysian adventure addict, drawn as much to the nightclub as he is to the refugee camp, so that the good he does never gets mistaken for the good he is.

While the actual philanthropist that the show is loosely based on shares some of the traits of his fictional counterpart, one that he doesn’t is public notoriety. This is the way he likes it, out of the limelight and in the fray; he’s that rare breed in our day, someone destined for celebrity but who chooses not to make a household name for himself in the process of making the world a better place. Hence I will refer to him here as Anonymous.

Rarer still is his style, beginning with his outfit the day I met him, which consisted of a dyed caftan over ripped jeans and Chuck Taylor hi-tops, with a Buddhist mala bead bracelet hanging on his wrist. More to the point, though, is the style of his philanthropy, which consists of eye-to-eye, on-the-ground involvement in some of the most dire places on the planet: Rwanda, Uganda, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian territories, to name a few. If you find it hard to imagine widows in Rwanda joining forces with the wives of murderers to form independent businesses funded by micro-loans, Anonymous does not. It was his idea, and to this day he’s helped launch 2,000 such ventures.

Ten months a year for the past eight years he has crisscrossed the globe, spending three to five years on any given initiative before he hands it over to a group like the Ford Foundation for long-term management. He’s also spent a good deal of time dodging death in jails, sick wards, and the like, most recently having had the luck to change a meeting in an Afghan hotel shortly before armed men entered the lobby and killed ten people.

The key to his endurance is a kind of motto, “selfish is sustainable.” He’s in it as much for himself as for those he helps, and he pities the people who do good only for society and leave themselves out of the picture. There’s nothing wrong with writing a check, he says, but we’re idiots to deprive ourselves of the hands-on experience that affords, in economic terms, immeasurable “return on investment.” For Anonymous, there is no greater R.O.I. than handing a pair of sneakers to a child in need, because the joy this brings both parties in the transaction is astronomically greater than the cost of that pair.

It was a refreshing perspective, if not altogether orthodox, coming from one so bold to preach it without apology. And though my instant (unspoken) reaction was to poke the obvious dogmatic holes in such a philosophy, I found myself thinking at a certain point during our meeting: Jesus would love this guy.

And yet, there are holes to be poked. Dogma aside, the credo “selfishness is sustainable” strives for the same alliterative effect of “greed is good,” though lacking the latter’s monosyllabic impact. But perhaps it’s the poet in me that simply can’t abide the sibilance: all those s’s tend to render the hiss of a serpent.

Shortly after our meeting, my visiting mother-in-law was admitted to the hospital for what appeared to be a minor stroke, and the sudden upheaval left me concerned as much with finding a pocket of time in which to write. With all due respect for Anonymous and the vital work he does—even to make such a disclaimer sounds ridiculous in light of his accomplishments—I think what is also sustainable in his case is the nearly psychedelic asymmetry of a lifestyle that takes you from Kigali to Kabul in your G-5, followed by some very uplifting downtime with a certain rock star in Tokyo. But when it’s you in your crappy Honda Civic going to the local hospital in Brooklyn where your mother-in-law is laid up, thinking there might be something in this sequence of events for your next blog, there doesn’t seem to be so much mileage in selfishness.

Especially when that blog is due today, on Good Friday.

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