Ariane Sherine

This article is from the Spring 2014 issue of New Humanist magazine. You can subscribe here.

There are four devout Muslims in traditional dress in my flat, dismantling my wardrobes. I don’t know them. As I hurriedly kick lacy underwear and Agent Provocateur bags out of their way, my two-year-old pipes up loudly and cheerily, “I want to watch Peppa Pig! Peppa Pig is my favourite.” Given my surname, the visitors must think I’m the world’s worst Muslim, but are far too polite to say anything.

They are not bailiffs, but the winners of my eBay charity auction for the wardrobes in question. Until July, I will be selling 50 per cent of my possessions in aid of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), the humanitarian charity that treats people all over the world who are in the most urgent need. I chose MSF because I have been researching charities a lot this year, and they are praised by the charity analysis site GiveWell.org as being “unusually transparent”.

But why is a virtually unemployed single mum selling half her belongings in the first place? I could say that I moved from a larger flat to a smaller one, that I had minimal storage space, and that I owned lots of stuff I didn’t need. But to answer the question fully, I would have to go back to one quiet night early last year, when my 22-month-old daughter was lying asleep next to me, her tousled curls falling across her face.

I looked at her and thought: “I don’t mind whether you grow up to believe in God or not. I don’t mind if you decide to be Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish, or Zoroastrian. I don’t even care if you become a door-knocking Jehovah’s Witness. I only hope that I can teach you to be kind.”

I wondered how I could do that, and realised that I didn’t have a clue. If kindness was giving lots of money to charity, then as a skint single parent I was failing hopelessly. If it was volunteering, I hadn’t done any since I was pregnant, waddling around a charity office like a particularly dim penguin. If I didn’t know what kindness was, then I couldn’t be kind myself; and if I wasn’t, then what hope did my daughter have of being a good person?

I Googled “how to be kind”, and came across the famous quote from John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” A devout atheist adhering to the words of a Christian theologian, I made a conscious decision: I would find out exactly what “goodness” and “kindness” were, and make sure that I stuck to this quote at all times. I would become a better person, for the sake of my daughter.

I went to donate blood for the first time, signed the Organ Donor register, and went vegan (if anyone knows a good recipe for eggless pancakes that don’t stick, I am slightly desperate). I recycled as though my life depended on it, switched my electricity to Good Energy and my banking to the Co-op (still the only high street bank with an ethical investment policy, despite all their troubles), and signed up to volunteer with an elderly person for two hours a week.

I took my toddler out to collect litter in the street. When a burly skinhead dropped his crisp packet, she pointed at him and barked, “Oi! Pick that up!” I taught her how to separate the rubbish into the different recycling bins, and explained that we didn’t eat meat “because you like dogs, and you wouldn’t eat them, so we shouldn’t eat other
animals either”.

Together, we made vegetable soup and delivered it to a sick neighbour, made vegan cupcakes to give out in the street, redelivered misdelivered post, bought the Big Issue, put money in a busker’s case and sent “get well” cards to friends. Over the next six months, I retrained as a massage therapist, and offered half-price massages to charity workers, students, nurses, social workers, single mothers, the unemployed and those on low incomes.

I pledged to give 10 per cent of my income to charity, and researched charities to find the most cost-effective. (It is generally thought to be the Against Malaria Foundation, where 100 per cent of public donations are spent directly on malaria nets, distributed in developing countries. The organisation is entirely transparent, and donors can see exactly where their donation has gone.) But as I barely had an income – I look after my daughter half the time and have earned more in the last tax year from child benefit than from any other source – I decided to sell half my possessions to raise more money for charity.

“Who do you think you are, Jesus?” a friend demanded to know.

“I hope not – I’m 33,” I replied.

Clearly, I’m not the Messiah, just a very naughty girl – but one who wants to be decent as well as indecent. And, once you start being good, it is amazing how many chances you discover to do good turns. You can help teach disadvantaged children to read, tend communal gardens, go carol singing for charity, help measure pollution levels in the area, give blood, donate stem cells, bake healthy cakes and distribute them to homeless people – there are so many ways to make a difference that I hadn’t realised before.

Not all my friends and family were pleased with my new ethical outlook. When I answered the question “Are you seeing anyone?” with the po-faced “No, I’m married to the planet,” my friend snorted, “Dear Lord, that’s even more boring than being married to God!” Another friend accused me of approaching “this ‘ethical thing’ with the same evangelical fervour as you did atheism”.

“Why are you selling your stuff for charity when you don’t have any money?” my mother wanted to know. “Surely it would be better to sell it for yourself and pay off your overdraft?”
It seems like a valid point, until you consider that, despite my debt, I have food, clean running water, warmth, shelter, clothing and light. There are people in the world living without any of these things, so it makes sense to do what little I can to help them.

Along my journey towards kindness, I learned some surprising things. Reading the Good Shopping Guide from the Ethical Company Organisation, I discovered that several companies I’d always bought from supported the arms trade. Others had a poor record on human rights, workers’ rights and animal welfare; still others, a devastating effect on the environment. It is perfectly legal for these companies to sell to an unaware UK public; however, I no longer felt able to support them or own their products.

But while unethical companies existed, so did amazing people. I learnt about Toby Ord, a moral philosopher and Oxford research fellow who was just a year older than me, but had founded a philanthropic organisation called Giving What We Can. As well as donating everything he earns over £18,000 to charity, aiming to give a million in total in his lifetime, and encouraging others to follow suit, Ord’s organisation evaluates the cost-effectiveness of different charities, letting people know how their donations can make the most difference.

I also discovered that giving feels good. I get more pleasure from raising money for Médecins Sans Frontières’ account than for my own, and giving away cupcakes in the street feels infinitely lovelier than eating them myself, while providing companionship to my elderly lady, Zarepha, is one of the highlights of my week. I wondered if there had been any research on the emotional benefits of giving to others, and discovered a study by Harvard which stated that “happier people give more, that giving indeed causes increased happiness, and that these two relationships may operate in a circular fashion”.

I want to leave the world a better place than it would have been had I not existed – and the thing is, we can all do that. So I decided to put together a list of ten practical ways to make a difference in a free book called Give: How to Be Happy. The book – and the associated campaign Give Just One Thing – encourages readers to commit to doing just one thing out of ten options, which include: giving blood, volunteering for a charity, helping the environment, going vegetarian or vegan, signing the organ donor register, voting in every election, becoming more eco-friendly, giving 10 per cent of your income to charity, supporting ethical companies and, yes, selling some of your possessions for charity.

I have made several mistakes along the way. Most notably, I sold my wardrobes before selling the clothes in them, so my floor is now littered with clothes. Selling my West Wing box set before watching all the seasons was also a wrench. And yet, as my rooms grow progressively emptier, so I feel lighter and cleaner – purer, even. I have also met some lovely people: the devout Muslims were kind and gracious; a Jewish newlywed gave me twice the amount he owed, because he wanted to support MSF; and the lady who bought my hair straighteners wished me Happy Christmas, and said she enjoyed the jokes in the listings.

Each listing takes around an hour to set up. I take the photos, trying to make the item in question look as presentable and covetable as possible. I then write a comedy Q&A to accompany the listing.

I also write the winner of each auction a thank-you card. My daughter is thus far showing no signs of becoming a Jehovah’s Witness, but has been known to scribble incoherent messages in the cards, so perhaps she’s doing her evangelising in code.

There is something immensely liberating about getting rid of your stuff – retaining just what you need and no more. You gain space, both physically and mentally, as well as the knowledge that your surplus possessions have gone to a better home, and the comforting realisation that you’re no less happy with less. Society would have us believe that the richer you are materially, the richer your life is; but, as 84-year-old Zarepha pointed out to me, richness comes from the people you love and the things you do, not what you own. In that, if not in wealth, I am very fortunate to be abundant.

And if anyone is reading this and wants to come round to my flat, I promise it will be tidier next time.

Download your free copy of Ariane Sherine's e-book Give: How to Be Happy.