Take A Blue Token

Niamh packs her shopping into a bag, removing her items from the bagging area as instructed by the self-service machine. She checks again to make sure that nothing has been left behind. No items remaining in the basket. No change in the coin return.

“No, of course not,” Niamh thinks, “I paid by card. Should I pick up the receipt? Do I really need it?”

There’s a queue of people waiting for vacant self-service machines. Niamh doesn’t usually shop here and she really feels the pressure to move.

“And don’t forget to take a blue token!” the self-service machine announces.

“A blue token?” Niamh repeats, with a look of confusion.

Her head swivels around until she spots a stand by the exit of the self-service area with a bowl of blue plastic tokens on top. Her shopping bag in one hand, Niamh takes a single token with her free hand as she passes by the bowl. What now? She sees the collection point for blue tokens a few metres away. It’s made up of three clear plastic tubes with a slot on the top of each tube, into which a token can be placed. Over these, a sign explains the purpose of the blue token:

“Every 8 weeks, the Community Fund selects 3 causes from your nominations. The cause that receives the most blue tokens is awarded €1000!”

“Oh…” Niamh sighs with some relief, “it’s a fundraiser. I see…”

Niamh inspects the title on top of each tube. One is dedicated to a local sports club, another to a nearby centre for learning disabilities, while the remaining tube is for an Alzheimer’s research group. Niamh looks at the contents of the tubes, mostly empty, noting with some bemusement that the local sports club has an early lead in number of tokens. As Niamh reads the blurbs that accompany each title, another shopper drops their blue token in the local sports club’s tube without stopping to consider the other two slots. Niamh is indignant. No consideration for the local centre for learning disabilities or research for Alzheimer’s disease?

“How awful,” she thinks.

Niamh doesn’t mean to be flippant – a good cause is a good cause and all that – but surely, there are two genuine contenders from the three and the sports club is neither of them. However, Niamh only has one blue token to award. As her shopping bag rests by her heels and her choices have narrowed to two causes, Niamh’s eyes dart back and forth between the two tubes. Which one to choose? Or, put another way, which one to not choose?

“This should be straight-forward,” Niamh thinks without conviction, lost in thoughts about how selecting one good cause means the other will be deprived.

But she must choose to support a centre for learning disabilities or an Alzheimer’s research group. Niamh did not anticipate this level of pressure when she ‘popped to the shop for a few bits’, yet here she is, biting her nails from stress. Another shopper passes, her two small children following her reach up with a blue token each and they both go into the local sports club’s tube. At the sight of this, Niamh becomes absolutely livid. Is that the choice of the kids? Does their mother even know about the other options? It’s like no one even cares about the other two causes.

“And don’t forget to take a blue token!”

Niamh hears the phrase repeated behind her. She turns around to see that the self-service area is not currently attended by a staff member. Some dark part of her mind pipes up… “maybe take another token…” Niamh does not immediately dismiss the idea, teasing it out in her mind further, until she finds a flaw.

“No, a token each would cancel out and that’s like making no choice at all.”

Looking on as more shoppers exit, placing their blue tokens in the tube of their choice as they walk by, Niamh realises that she is the only person in the whole shop who has given more than a passing thought to this decision. She stops herself.

“This is silly,” she thinks, “just pick one and go home.”

Yet, Niamh feels a bit dirty, sullied by being forced to make a choice between two deserving causes, and anguished by the idea that this should be a simple, passing decision. It’s not that at all, though, the more she thinks about it. Let the blue token dance for the money, that’s what it’s really like. Making good causes compete for support in a popularity contest.

“It’s digusting,” Niamh concludes, “and this business should be ashamed. They could easily fund all three!”

Niamh takes a few deep breaths to calm herself. She reasons it out that the company are not at fault for trying to support local causes. At least they’re doing something to make a positive contribution, money potentially goes to lots of causes rather than one, and local people choose what causes get considered.

“It’s better than most,” she tells herself.

More than that, Niamh can barely blame people of the community for supporting a cause they care about. Who wouldn’t do the same? For a finish, she places her blue token in the slot for the centre for learning disabilities. Niamh is happy with her decision. Well, temporarily at least. She still feels a pang of guilt for not also supporting the Alzheimer’s research group. Even so, as she exits the shop, Niamh lets go of all her feelings of guilt and indecision with a shrug of her shoulders.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says to herself, glumly, “that fecking sports club will probably win it, anyway…”


A couple of weeks later, Niamh discovers the result: the sports club receives €1000; not the centre for learning disabilites or even the group for Alzheimer’s research.

“We’re a doomed species,” she says. “A doomed species.”