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To Give Is To Gain: Bobby Sager’s Philosophy Of Philanthropy

November 13th, 2009

We’ve all heard the familiar criticism–that despite our relative wealth and high standard of living, modern life has left many of us feeling lonely, disconnected, and spiritually bankrupt.

At a time when so many of us are working ourselves to death, struggling to support ourselves and our loved ones, and seeking balance in our personal and professional lives, it seems that there is no time to step outside of our immediate experience and ask ourselves the deeper questions about community, connection, and what it means to reach out and help another human being.

Given the break-neck pace of our own lives, at the end of the day there just doesn’t seem to be enough left of ourselves to give–emotionally or financially.

However, there is one activist–entrepreneur-turned philanthropist Bobby Sager–who is on a mission to change our understanding of what it means to give. His life and work do not teach an ethics of guilt, but instead how we might use charity as a creative strategy for leading a fuller, more engaged life. Rather than view philanthropy as an infringement on our already hectic schedules, Sager offers the giving life as a model for transforming the way we live.

Sager’s mission began ten years ago when he quit his work as an entrepreneur to dedicate his life to philanthropy full-time. It was then that he took his children out of school, packed his bags, and set out in search of a better way of life. Since that time he has travelled to some of the world’s most desperate locations, documenting his experience through the lens of his camera.

I met with Sager at Donna Karan’s Urban Zen Studio during an October 27th release party for his latest project–The Power of the Invisible Sun–a collection of photographs taken of children throughout the developing world. The Power of the Invisible Sun is the culmination of nearly a decade of philanthropic expeditions in places such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, and Nepal, ranging from the weeks following September 11th, 2001 until 2009.

Sager has been an outspoken critic of “feel good” philanthropy, wherein one engages in charitable acts in order to induce a passing feeling of self-satisfaction, only to quickly retreat to the isolation of everyday life. A self-proclaimed “doer” rather than a “do-gooder,” Sager’s own philanthropic orientation is not one of condescension and pity toward those he helps, but of a hope that is both transformative and, as he likes to say, “strategic.”

“I don’t do this for redemption,” said Sager, “I do this because I’m selfish. I always say to people: be selfish, help somebody.”

Through his own brand of “eyeball-to-eyeball philanthropy,” which emphasizes the importance of direct face-to-face contact, Sager offers up a new way in which to view our relationship toward the giving life–a relationship that is less about giving things up and more about what we stand to gain from engaging in a life of service. “I don’t want you to feel guilty for these kids,” Sager warns, “I want you to take strength from their strength.” Rather than seeing the children in his book solely as objects of his charity, Sager emphasizes how his own face-to-face relationships taught him to live a deeper, more connected life.

Sager’s philosophy of giving inverts our narrow conception of philanthropy as merely aiding those less fortunate than ourselves. In his case, it was he–the philanthropist–who gained the most from the strength of those children–from the hope and power that emanated from their eyes. This is precisely what is meant by the Power of the Invisible Sun: “Eyeball-to-eyeball philanthropy is about living a full life–it’s about looking people in the eye and discovering a shared humanity.”

This search for “shared humanity” is deeply reflected in Sager’s photographic process.
“The last one percent of my process is taking the photograph. Before that, it’s all about stripping away filters and establishing a human-to-human connection.”

Sager has not had to venture on this journey alone. In addition to his family, he was joined by long-time friend, travel companion, and internationally-renowned singer and songwriter Sting, whose song “Invisible Sun”–originally written about the tensions in Northern Ireland–served as the inspiration for Sager’s book. Like Sager, Sting’s inspiration for philanthropic work stemmed from a sense of personal urgency and fulfillment, saying, “I didn’t have any road to Damascus kind of moment, I just do what feels right in the moment, instinctively.”

Hosting the event was fellow philanthropist and fashion designer Donna Karan–head of DKNY and noted patient advocate. Karan’s longstanding involvement with cross-cultural philanthropy and the preservation of endangered cultures was a motivating factor for supporting The Power of the Invisible Sun.

“We must work to preserve these cultures and the knowledge they contain,” said Karan of her involvement with Sager, as well as her own work at the Urban Zen Center. “It is about protecting this knowledge that cannot be obliterated.” Karan emphasized the need to create a “center of consciousness” that will utilize indigenous knowledge to combat the apathy and isolation characteristic of our culture. Her Urban Zen Center has been an attempt to create such a place.

Flipping through the pages, readers will notice that The Power of the Invisible Sun is a physically impressive book, and the young faces that grace the pages stare back with full-scale human intensity. For Sager, the book’s massive size is a self-conscious strategy that reflects his mission to replicate his own experiences–a way of allowing us to see those children as he saw them. But in the end, the choice is ours whether the promise of their gaze elicits our guilt and condescension, or inspires our strength and hope.

Most of us are not as lucky as Bobby Sager. After all, he has been afforded the opportunity to dedicate his entire life to doing something he loves–that enriches his sense of being. Yet every one of us is capable, in our own way, of reaching out and discovering the joy of a better life–a giving life.

Originally Posted at The Huffington Post

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