What ancient logic lies behind our modern endurance-for-charity events?

A couple of weeks ago in my town, someone organized a “Be Great 5K Run & Fun Walk,” in which people ran and fun-walked, and a handful of businesses – a bank, a brewery, a sport shoe store – donated money to the local Boys & Girls Clubs. The following week I learned that two teens from my local neighborhood have been cycling across the USA with Lance Armstrong’s foundation, to raise money for cancer research. It occurred to me that these ritualized suffering-for-charity events are now so common and popular that on any given weekend they must involve at least tens of thousands of people throughout the Western world. There are fun runs, walkathons, full and partial marathons, swim-a-thons, scuba-dive-a-thons, ski-a-thons, climb-a-thons, and bottom-chafing trans-continental bike-a-thons. Yet no one ever questions the behavioral logic of these things.

Typically for one of these events, a group of charitably-minded local people agrees to undergo some feat of minor endurance. There may be special inducements for the winners, but often there is none. In economic terms, the most important goal may be to create a local audience for advertisements—on banners, t-shirts, cups, etc.—which local donors will purchase. Thus the sweat of the sufferers is transmuted into dollars for charity.

It seems a clever way to crowdsource philanthropy. But there may be more to it than that. In many of these events, donors are not compensated with significant advertising or even recognition. Moreover, the donations are often made in the name of a particular participant, and linked to the level of endurance achieved—such as miles run or laps swum. This linkage is rather mysterious. One party deliberately suffers; another party correspondingly pays; a third party—a charity—benefits; and everyone ends up feeling that they have done something good for their fellow man.

I suspect that the logic at work here goes unsaid because it is essentially spiritual. And since these charity-endurance affairs are found predominantly in Western societies, I can’t help wondering whether they derive somehow from the original “West,” namely medieval Europe. In that environment, public acts of endurance and suffering for the common good were very prominent—not too surprisingly, since they represented the central theme of the dominant religion. Their logic also was widely understood: One’s material suffering could serve as a gift to God, who in return would grant benefits to the giver, or more broadly to his family or community.

This is the logic of sacrifice, and it has appeared in so many cultures that it is likely to have originated prehistorically. However, in medieval European societies, there were forms of public, charitable endurance that I think bear a particularly strong resemblance to those of today.

One example is the walkathon known as the pilgrimage, in which groups of people would spend weeks or months travelling hundreds of miles to places of special religious significance. Jerusalem ranked highest among these destinations, and wealthy nobles or merchants who could not be bothered to join these pilgrimages were often called upon to sponsor them. The payoff was a spiritual boost not only to the pilgrims and their sponsors but also to the friends and loved ones for whom the pilgrims offered prayers. Thus a pilgrimage could be a charitable act.

The odd medieval practice of self-flagellation, often practiced in groups, also bears a resemblance to our modern charity endurance events. It appears to have originated with certain monastic orders, who at times would emerge from their cloisters and parade through nearby towns, publicly scourging themselves and streaming with blood. In the late Middle Ages these monastic displays turned into a mass movement. According to the historian Norman Cohn, cults of “flagellants” roved from town to town and were popularly seen “not simply as penitents who were atoning for their own sins but as martyrs who were taking upon themselves the sins of the world…” The belief that the sins of the world had brought the deadly pandemic known as the Black Death made the flagellants’ public service seem especially important, and certainly worth paying for. “It became a privilege to welcome and assist such people,” wrote Cohn. Ordinary folk donated to the flagellants, and “even the urban authorities drew freely upon public funds” to do the same.

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology it is not hard to see how the old logic of sacrifice could have been both adaptive and culturally persistent: To believe that one’s suffering or loss can be used as a sort of currency, with which to buy benefits for oneself and others, should provide quite a psychological boost, potentially enabling one to bear severe hardships.

It would be easy to make too much of these resemblances between past and present, but some could give us practical insights. For example, one of the most common forms of self-sacrifice in medieval times was fasting, often of the severe and continuous variety. Even in extreme forms it was not viewed as an “eating disorder,” but instead as a mark of self-discipline and a way to overcome sin and guilt, thereby achieving a state of spiritual grace. Very similar themes of “discipline,” “purity” and “perfection” are emphasized by modern anorexics (e.g., on their websites), although the idea that they might be acting out an ancient reflex—meant to cleanse their sins and ours—does not yet seem to have occurred to at least the vast majority of those who treat them.

This comparative perspective might also help us to better understand the modern jihadi suicide bomber. The sacrificial aspect of his motives is obvious. But the resemblance of his journey to a pilgrimage doesn’t seem to have been widely noticed. In certain quarters of modern Islam the suicide bombing appears to be considered a special variant of pilgrimage, more exclusive than the traditional Hajj to Mecca but fulfilling a nearly identical spiritual purpose. “Hajj or jihad?” is a choice often posed to young Muslim men, and “Your jihad is Hajj” was Muhammad’s invocation to Muslim women, meaning that their spiritual struggles are best worked out in pilgrimage. Certainly among medieval Christians, the lines between pilgrimage and armed crusade were often blurred. Thus both the jihadi suicide bomber and our secular sufferers for charity may be moving along the same, well-worn path in the human psyche.


Originally published July 15, 2010