I am not a good person. I do not mean people well. I perform acts of altruism with extreme infrequency, shunning them whenever I can. What has the world ever done for me, anyway?
Partly as a way to counteract all of this—and after a lifetime of avoiding it—I recently wandered onto the website for the American Red Cross and registered for a local blood drive. At the appointed time, I strutted into the library where the event was being held and donated a pint of my precious bodily fluids, to be used however the proud organization sees fit. Finally, a way to put my wretched carcass to good use before it expires.
What strikes one upon giving blood for the first time is the extreme ease and painlessness of the whole ordeal. I recall myself, as a teen, once saying something to the effect of, “For me, the pain of the needle is not worth helping somebody else.” It is possibly the stupidest thing I have ever said.
First, and most obviously, it is a stupid comment for its abject selfishness and narcissism; years later, I shake my head in disbelief that I could allow myself to utter such piffle in public.
What is more, the actual experience of giving blood disproves the whole premise. In point of fact, the donation process itself is little more than a slightly longer version of a routine blood test, which, for the overwhelming majority of us, is the most stress-free chore in the world: A fleeting burst of pain as the needle penetrates the skin, followed by several moments of extreme tedium as we allow the wonders of science to do their work.
Further still, Red Cross workers ensure your maximum personal comfort at every step of the way. The background check interview is now self-administered on a computer, allowing you to record the number of times you have exchanged sexual favors for cash in dignified silence. The needle is threaded as you lie flat on your back, inviting the very real possibility of nodding off before it’s over. And of course, everything ends at the complimentary snack bar, featuring all the free water and crackers you care to consume.
What I learned—as many millions of my peers have doubtless known for years—is that giving blood is an absolute good. Performed in the correct way, with all the necessary precautions, it is an act with near-unlimited benefits and practically no drawbacks.
I confess that I merely skimmed the section of the donor handbook regarding what, specifically, might happen to my blood once it left my arm. I knew the possibilities were legion, and could wager, with reasonable certitude, that washing down Nosferatu’s steak was not one of them. Assuming my sample proved viable, something good would come of it. That’s all I needed to know.
What finally convinced me to go through with it—surely you must wonder—was Christopher Hitchens, a fellow atheist who, in promoting his book God is Not Great, cited giving blood as an example of an inherently good deed that requires no religious inducement, and can be done just as well by a nonbeliever as by a believer. On this, I dare say he was right.
I say it is an absolute good—not merely a nice thing to do—because, as Hitchens reminds us, our bodies can recover that lost pint with all deliberate speed. There is nothing sacrificial to the act—nothing we give up (other than our time) that we don’t immediately regain.
Accordingly, there is nothing brave or exceptional to it—no measurable risk to assume—and thus no excuse for any qualified potential donor not to seize the opportunity when it arises, which it does with fantastic regularity in all corners of the United States, in every big city and every small town.
More beauteous still, it can be done for any reason. In its design, it appeals both to our sense of altruism as well as our selfishness. As with many charities, we do not know (in most cases) precisely who might benefit from our donation, lending an air of abstraction to an exercise that, at the same time, will have a very direct and real effect on a fellow human being.
Taking all of these considerations together, then, the point is not that one should give blood out of the goodness of one’s heart. It is, rather, that one should hide one’s head in shame for declining to do so.