Selfless or Selfish?

Every day online there are stories of famous people donating money to worthy charities and really helping those in need. Right under these stories, in a little area of hell called the Comments Section, there will always be a group that call foul on this selfless act. They will argue that said celebrity was only doing it for the publicity and therefore was not selfless, but rather disgustingly selfish for trying to further their image or career through acts of charity. I think I once was a selfish celebrity.

In February of 2010, at the beginning of my second to last year of college, I started at a new school. The details of why and how are mostly boring and irrelevant except for one important point;

  1. I had no friends at this new school.

Making new friends when you are five and starting primary school is hard. Making new friends at a private all-girls school when you are fifteen is just silly. I'm not someone that introduces myself to people at parties. I'm that someone who listens to her friend talk to someone else for ten minutes until it is too late for anyone to say their name and have it be comfortable.

The first month at this new school was tough. Not cry-in-the-bathroom-stall-while-eating-lunch tough (though I did use the bathroom at least thrice every lunch hour because it beat sitting alone on the outskirts of a discussion) but more having-no-friends-is-really-boring tough. Everyone was lovely and polite and welcoming but I had hit a plateau. A plateau where 80% of my contributions to conversations were to provide the Samoan viewpoint on a given topic, which I was great at. One topic was how many times one should eat KFC in their lifetime. I said every time there was a birthday in the family, everyone else agreed one should never eat KFC. This dynamic was entertaining and allowed me to interact in a dialogue with my peers but it was very superficial and not fulfilling.

Now let us pause and move a few streets over to an old friend's place. My mum had looked after this friend (Gloriana) at our house when we were toddlers so it's safe to say we went way back. Gloriana's mum had very recently passed away from cancer and we were at their house chatting about anything and everything when it came up that her mum had always been so upbeat during her battle and was not afraid to go about her day with a headscarf on or off. I thought that was really cool and casually mentioned that Shaving for A Cure was something I was interested in doing especially since my friend Anneke was in the middle of treatment and had lost her hair. Gloriana liked the idea so I decided to do it. I went home that night and asked/told my Mum and she said “Mmmm okay.” I put up a status on facebook (of course) to get sponsors and went about my business as usual. The next day a few people had asked if I had been hacked (no), when was I doing it (soon), and where (probably at home). Someone mentioned doing it at school. Great. That night, Hettie Morrison from my year messaged me and asked if she could shave with me (of course, please do) and suddenly things started happening. Hettie had lots of friends which made this Shave event suddenly a lot more popular. People took around pledge sheets for sponsors and made photoshopped posters of our faces and stuck them all over the school (a year 9 girl gave me a Hitler moustache on one of them and I harbour resentment towards her to this day). Suddenly everyone knew who I was. They put our names on the poster but there was already a Maddy in my year so I became Mad Chap. I had introduced myself to everyone I encountered as Madeleine in an attempt to 'start fresh' at a new school.

No one knew (or cared about) Madeleine Chapman but within a fortnight, everyone loved Mad Chap.

Having Hettie shave with me was great for the cause and we ultimately raised 1000% more money with her shaving than if I had done it alone. Shaving in general was great because it was a conversation starter. People would come up and ask about how they could donate or what they could do to help. Some would just say nice things about what we were planning to do. It was the ultimate icebreaker for someone who is not good at breaking ice. On the day of the shave, the auditorium was packed with students, most of whom I did not recognise. It went well except for the hairdresser being so nervous she cut her finger and bled on my scalp. After the shave, I knew everyone. I didn't have to awkwardly introduce myself to my seat mates in class because they knew I was Mad Chap with no hair. I started finally making some real connections and embracing school life with a newfound confidence, having hurdled the tough first stage in the most unlikely way. People looked at both Hettie and I different and said how great it was that we had made this sacrifice, a sacrifice that few teenage girls would make.

But here's the thing. It was no sacrifice for me. I had hair down to my bum which made it seem like even more of a 'sacrifice' but it was really the opposite. My Dad used to grow his beard out every once in a while when I was younger and us kids never liked it. We would ask him to shave it off and he would say no, because the school he taught at was fundraising and if they reached a certain target, they could shave his beard. But you're going to shave it anyway, we argued. They don't know that, he would reply, before saying he prayed they would reach the target because if they didn't he would be forced to keep the gross beard for at least a couple more weeks before getting rid of it. This is almost what my process was. I had this long hair that I grossly neglected and wanted gone. I also had (and still seem to have) no issue with looking ridiculous in public.

If a girl shaves her head for no apparent reason, people see it as a fashion choice and judge accordingly. If a girl shaves her head for charity, she has done a good thing and is off the hook. It was a win-win.

Hettie, however, was truly making a sacrifice. She had great hair and always wore it nice and paired it with stylish clothes. Her getting rid of her hair was a true sacrifice that I admired. Me getting rid of mine was a free haircut. The fact that people loved to use the word 'brave' when talking to me made me feel horrible. I had benefitted so much, too much, from something that was supposed to be selfless.

Every time someone volunteers in a third world country, they come back and say something like “We went over to teach them, but really they taught us so much more.” I always cringe when I hear that but it never makes me think of them as being selfish for gaining something from it. Am I just like them? I did't put in any effort or money or make any huge personal sacrifice though so am I as 'selfish' as multi-millionaires giving thousands of dollars to charity? It seems like such a big contribution to most people but it probably doesn't affect their life at all, and as a bonus they are widely praised for their generosity and selflessness. It is a well-documented theory that being charitable is inherently selfish in the best way. It makes us feel good about ourselves knowing that we are helping others. This I was willing to admit to even at the time, but the onslaught of continuing benefits has only become clear to me recently.

A few months after I shaved I was voted into a leadership position which would almost certainly never have happened had my bald face not been plastered all over the school already. Then the following year I received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Auckland despite my grades not being that great, but charity work and leadership positions look real nice on an application form. This year I graduated from university with no student loan and am now able to travel around America with a bank balance in the black and true friends in my heart.

It has been five years since I shaved my hair off for charity and I wonder if it is the most selfish thing I will ever do.