why I participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (anyway)

Like most academics I know, I tend to over-think things. Lest you consider this a character flaw, I prefer to think of myself as mindful and reflective. (My entire family, including my dog Lucy, just rolled their eyes. Look, here is a picture of Lucy rolling her eyes.)

photo (1)

My participation in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge flared up my over-thinking (ahem, mindfulness) like nobody’s business. The first time I was asked to do it, I said no. The second time, I said yes. In both cases, I was asked to participate by someone I love and respect, so I did some research. (I know! I DID RESEARCH. Cue more rolling of the eyeballs.) Here’s a summary of what I found out:

The ALS Challenge is problematic because it has:

  1. exacerbated the “selfie syndrome.” That is, the millions of people posting Facebook videos are making the cause all about them rather than about the cause itself.
  2. fed the feel-good instinct and a bandwagon mentality. See #1 above.
  3. fostered a new generation of narcissistic “slacktivists” who, if they actually follow through with the financial commitment at all, won’t do so in any sustained way.
  4. given the ALS license to spend its money inappropriately and diverted money from other worthy causes.
  5. inadvertently encouraged people to waste water, a precious natural resource that many people in developing countries have little or insufficient access to in the first place.

Well, all that was troubling. And again, it triggered perhaps a wee bit too much overthinking. When I reflected on whether or not any of these claims applied to me, the results were less than flattering. First of all, I take selfies. Also, “doggies.” Sometimes I take selfies with my doggy. Then I post them to Facebook and Twitter so that every friend and follower can partake in my indisputably fascinating life.

Also, I chose a career that is to a large extent based on the selfie syndrome. I am required to document all my yearly publications, presentations, and professional participation. If I don’t, I don’t get raises and stuff. I also take it upon myself to identify important issues and call others’ attention to them. Plus I usually frame these issues with some helpful commentary because–did I happen to mention–I am a researcher and I know stuff and clearly, others want to know what I think about the stuff I know. (Control your eyeballs.) ((Also, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone somewhere is turning the ALS challenge into an academic selfie. There will be conference papers, charts and graphs, correlational research, and blog posts.)) (((Uh oh.)))

Although I don’t think I’m a slacktivist, I sometimes I jump on the bandwagon du jour, then I don’t follow through. The first part makes me feel good; the second part makes me feel guilty, so I resolve to never do this again. (Then I do this again. Can you say NaNoWriMo?)

I don’t always do my research when I donate to organizations I deem worthy, so I often don’t know how they use my donations. (I’ve learned, though, that you can allocate how you want the ALS to spend your money. If you want them to spend all of it on research, all you have to do is check a box. If you want to make a recurring donation, all you have to do is check a box.)

And even though I’m a firm believer in environmental conservation, I’m wasteful with natural resources. I routinely let the water run when I brush my teeth or when I’m waiting for it to get hot so I can wash the dishes or take a shower. I take showers that are longer than they need to be. I’ve participated in water-centric charitable events like car washes and dunk tanks. Also, I’m on the grid, and I drive car. In fact, just yesterday, I drove to a friend’s house that was within walking distance. When I do follow through, I do so cafeteria-style. I recycle, but only when it’s convenient because all those plastic #6 containers and printer cartridges–so much trouble. I take my own reusable bags to the grocery store, but then I put food items like produce and bread in plastic bags that aren’t biodegradable.


Despite these unflattering realizations, I did decide to move forward with the ALS Challenge because I felt that this was one instance when I could use my selfie, feel-good instincts to jump on a worthy bandwagon, and I could do that in a sustaining way. Even though I would feel a twinge of guilt about the water-wasting part, I admit that, unless you live in a drought-stricken area, I am still having trouble understanding how the water wasted in this challenge deprives others access to that same water–though it is one more instance that we in the U.S. are still so clueless about the privileges we enjoy that we literally broadcast our wastefulness, thereby shoving it in others’ faces. (Matt Damon, co-founder of water.org, also participated in the Challenge, but offered some worthwhile food for thought.)

Having decided to move forward with the challenge, my over-thinking kicked in again. I needed to figure out whom I would challenge to participate. I determined two criteria: 1) they, too, needed to be over-thinkers who would critically consider their own participation, and 2) they needed to be likely to have the resources to contribute if they decided to do that.

One advantage of being an academic is that I know really smart, good over-thinkers. And guess what? None of them chose to participate in the ALS Challenge.

The DID react thoughtfully, however, their reactions provoked conversation, and they made me and others think (hopefully without over-thinking). Like Matt Damon sans the toilet water, Nicole Mirra hacked the challenge by pouring “invisible water” over her head to raise awareness about police brutality. Like President Obama, Cliff Lee and Danielle Filipiak respectfully declined; both promised to donate their time and resources to other worthy causes.


I suspect that the others whom I challenged are silently declining for good reasons. (Except one of them. You know who you are.)

In the end, I still understand that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is problematic, but for me, participating was the right decision. Regardless of whether or not you choose to participate in this or any other challenge, I challenge you to consider the following:

  • Where does need exist in your/the world? How can/should you respond to those needs? How can you exploit your feel-good instinct (which we have always had) and selfie tendencies (which most of us have recently acquired, thanks to technology) to make an impact that will change others’ lives for the better?
  • What bandwagons are you willing to board? What causes deserve your attention? How will you commit to those causes in a sustained way?
  • How can you use your power and privilege for good (i.e., your access to technology and the earth’s resources, your financial privilege, and so forth)?
  • If you do donate your time, money, and life energy to an organization, how do they spend it? To what extent can you earmark the way these things get spent so that they align with your values? 
  • Whom should you challenge to engage in civic participation? Will they raise important questions, provoke conversation, and thoughtfully choose how to (or not to) participate in the challenge? Will they make you and others think about those choices? 
  • Are you a slacktivist? Well, don’t be.

And if, like me, you tend to over-think just about every damn decision you make, keep doing your research, continue to be mindful, but not to the point of paralysis. You have that still, small voice for a reason. Sometimes you just need to listen to what it’s telling you, then do what it says.

#icebucketchallenge #ALS









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