Tag Archives: compassion

Hurtful Charity | A New Year’s Appeal To The Kind-Hearted and Well-To-Do

You’ve likely heard the adage, Give till it hurts, yet it’s unlikely you’re aware just how hurtful those acts of giving can be.

I’m not referring to charity of international aid type, which at times hurts more than it helps people and countries. This, because money is frequently wasted on minimal impact, culturally insensitive, and non-humanitarian programs, or alternatively, pilfered by greedy and corrupt individuals.

Rather, I’m speaking to some portion of the billions of dollars given each year by individuals, especially North Americans, to charitable causes, whether in cash, clothing, household items, or vehicles, and whether given to needy individuals who knock on one’s front door, stand in line at soup kitchens, or donated to residential or virtual non-profits such as Goodwill or Invisible Children.

Too frequently, it seems, the needy occupy a dumping ground for the well-to-do’s excess or discarded items, with little thought given to what it must feel like as human becomings, persons, to be so struggling that you’re reliant on the sometimes whimsical and charitable gifts of individuals or government–especially in the U.S., where 24-7 exposure to affluence is so pervasive.

“Excess benevolence” is predictable, particularly in capitalistic societies such as the United States, where home garages are more often used as storage containers than for their intended vehicular use, where garage sales serve to free up household space so that new items can be purchased, and where multi-storied, climate-controlled Public Storage is booming business and architectural landscape features.

Given realities that, one, “the poor will always be with us,” and, two, excess benevolence will persist irrespective of what I say or anyone campaigns against, what I’m trying to speak for is a more compassionate thoughtfulness toward the economically struggling, plus speaking to a prevalent attitude people have toward those who of necessity live at or below the poverty line–an unconscious versus pejorative attitude, perhaps, yet definitely condescending.

By compassionate thoughtfulness I speak for the dignity of those who by society’s definition are “poor” or “needy.”

Donna Hicks defines dignity as “a feeling of inherent value and worth,” and argues that a desire for dignity is humanity’s highest common denominator, as well as the missing link in understanding conflict.

She, more than anyone else, articulates what I am appealing for in this thought piece—

developmental shift in understanding, from our typically egocentric worldview and cognitive understanding, to a primal empathy.

Primal empathy calls for each one of us to develop a heightened emotional sensitivity and identification with those who suffer indignities.

That is—each one of us is capable of, and should more intentionally versus merely accidentally develop the capacity to “feel what the other’s life is like,” even to the point of “feeling the indignities they experience.”

Duplicity of intention, whether in the form of benevolence, generosity or “love,” is acutely felt and experienced at the nub of self-worth and self-identity by charity recipients.

Examples . . .

Pointing the finger at myself.

I wager that most of us will not perceive ourselves to be well-to-do. Comfortable, perhaps, but not wealthy. After all, one has to earn upwards of $400,000 annually in order to attain status as the “one-percent” richest in America.

Prosperity is fickle / relative, however.

For instance, although my non-profit take-home salary in South Africa was in the $30k’s, low by U.S. standards, benefits such as tuition remission for my children, rental housing allowance, healthcare, company use of vehicle, et cetera, took the figure upwards to a U.S. respectable $70k’s figure. At the current exchange rate, my salary equated to almost 750k rand, high above the average South African minimum income of 24k.

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

Our 100-year old rental house with Jacaranda tree, Kensington

My family frequently had clothing, accessories, luggage, linens, even aging electronics like laptops and cameras, which despite still being wearable or operational, were, nevertheless, well-used. How convenient that we had one, sometimes two “needy South Africans” who worked as domestics for us ! It was easy to think: “Surely they will want and be able to use these items.”

Our "family" minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Our “family” minus our son, who was in Germany studying.

Shamefacedly I admit that I have offered our well-used, soon to be discarded or replaced items by expressing the following type statement–“I’m going to throw these items away. Do you want them?”

Such “gifting” communicates the following attitude: “We recently bought new, and these used items are no longer desired or good enough for me or my family. But I thought to myself, ‘Given you and your family’s evident economic need, I’m sure you could use them.'”

The truth is: My own unconscious, yet condescending attitude toward the poor, didn’t slap my conscience until which time that my family and I were experiencing economic struggle ourselves.

The past three years have been a grateful awakening–despite them being painfully emotional ones–to what many people experience on a daily basis, including the many jobless and economically struggling in Austin, Texas, as well as many of our South African friends, colleagues and acquaintances. They likely felt the pain of “having less,” and perhaps, even, (wrongfully) perceiving themselves as “being less than” when in the presence of our material trappings of success.

Several personal comparisons:

Whereas our African friends heard us excitedly talking about going on this or that family vacation to the beach, mountains, or some international destination, I now experience my own Texas friends talk excitedly about their impending trips to Vegas, Hawaii, Vail, or similarly, reminisce about recent past trips to New England, Lake Tahoe, Paris or Cuba, while my own kids pine for glimpses of the life and experiences they once knew, while finding substitute in a 12-hour road trip to visit Abuelita in El Paso.

Whereas African acquaintances, even friends, perhaps, saw excess money in my family–that is, a means to enabling a better life for themselves, such as assistance with education expenses–I now experience that same temptation to hint at financial need to help offset my wife’s graduate study debt or enable vocational re-education/training for myself.

Whereas South Africans saw my family drive new or new-like vehicles, I now experience Texans test driving $100k electric cars, while my family makes do with a ’98 Honda and ’02 Toyota, which despite their age and my longing to drive a more updated and spacious vehicle, are still far more “life enabling” than required reliance upon foot or taxi power.

Whereas African friends and guests walked into our relatively large rental home and were no-doubt dumbstruck by its size, spaciousness, furnishings, amenities, security apparatus, et cetera, my children now experience leaving Texas homes, conscious of how constricting their shared and small bedroom is. While I’m truly grateful to have a roof over my head, I’m in awe of the extra spaciousness of some homes, which so effortlessly accommodates an office/study space, which as an academic I pine for.

What, then, should the (relatively) well-to-do do in light of such pervasive social need?

It’s tempting to advocate what is recorded in the Bible about the early community of Jesus followers, that “they were together, having all things in common, selling their property and possessions and sharing them with all as each had need.”

I do believe that a greater sharing of wealth and its privileges is essential not only for a more just and equitable society and world but also for a more peaceful one. I’m grateful for the rich and celebrity trend setters, in such persons as Bill and Melinda Gates, Bono, Warren Buffet, and Salman Khan, all of whom we should be grateful to for helping co-create a more equitable world.

Within a Christian or faith context, sharing beyond tokenism or for tax deduction benefit, as well as sharing in and alongside life with those whose life narrative is one of struggled existence would definitely restore a measure of credibility to “American religion,” perceived by many as elitist, segregated, socially reactive and disconnected–at least my own Baptist context of meaning.

Being realistic, however, I’ll settle for more compassionate and conscientious thoughts and acts of charity toward the poor and economically struggling.

I seldom reference the Bible in thought pieces, but it speaks to “offending the consciences” of those who are weak. Seems to me that those gifted with the “benefits of capitalism,” as well as a non-volatile/violent life setting in which to live, raise a family and children, should strive to live and engage the world with greater sensitivity and understanding, always mindful and sensitive to our shared and collective humanity.

 

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The Power of One . . . of Madiba . . . of You

I’m seldom a willing, let alone enthusiastic viewer of animated children/family movies. This, in contrast to a former South African friend of mine, who not only has a special tolerance for watching the latest kids’ movies, but also a knack as a minister of a small faith congregation for crafting clever, individualized marriage messages using themes and characters from the movies for soon-to-be married couples.

I have one exception, however. Madagascar. I laugh every viewing at the wit and humor of its colorful and animated characters, especially, of course, narcissistic King Julien, whose self-admiration is equal to Phoebe and Monica’s old friend and fake Brit, Amanda Buffamonteezi, in the 2003 Friends’ episode, “The One With Ross’s Tan,” in which, reuniting after years of having not seen each other, she tells her two friends to, “Look at me! Look how young I look.”

madagascar

Flipping channels two nights ago, as men stereotypically do, I hit on a rerun of Madagascar, in particular, the section where Alex (Ben Stiller, aka the lion) is alienated from his friends on the beach. It’s night, and feeling a desperation to escape the confining “wilds” of the island for the bright lights and accustomed comforts of mainland New York City, Alex erects a huge HELP beacon from the trunks of coconut trees.  He intended to set it alight immediately upon sighting of a rescue ship on the horizon.

Unfortunately for Alex, a storm brews, and lighting strikes, incinerating his help beacon, but not before the camera captures his emotional state of mind and life predicament.  That is, the in-flame “HELP” transforms by videography editing into a flaming message of “HELL.”

If my sense of observation is even in the ballpark of proximity, then there are more people than is comfortable to be aware of, whose lives right this moment are teetering on a paper’s edge between desperate unvoiced pleas for help, and life or work circumstances and relationships typified as hellish versus happy.

A case and area in point: My wife’s an advanced practice nurse, specializing in palliative care. Palliative implies “relieving pain” or “relieving symptoms,” and while it isn’t synonymous with death and dying, it frequently manages patients who are nearing the end of life’s journey.

This past week she learned the potency (defined as: “the power of something to affect the mind or body”) of touch combined with words as a “tool” of compassion and healing.

It’s a given that every palliative patient’s family has, is and will journey through an excruciatingly difficult period of life struggle. Emotional struggle, certainly (as in a spouse or child grieving the gradual yet persistent decline of their loved one’s physical health), but for many patients, the emotional is exacerbated by distracting lesser–but by no means little–stressors such as interfamily conflict (i.e., current spouse contending with former spouse, children and relatives over estate or end of life directives), creditors, impending repossessors, anxieties over the impending loss of a family’s primary income earner, et cetera.

Each family member affected by the chronic illness of a loved one struggles, no, agonizes over making the best life and death decisions she or he can under stressful circumstances, and obviously less than best choices are frequently made.

What my wife learned last week is how meaningful a touch on a shoulder, and a few acknowledging and affirming words to a struggling family member can be–“You’re doing a great job!” or “You’re doing so well given your family’s difficult circumstances!” or “I can’t imagine how painful this must be for you.”

Struggle is not the apropos time to offer personal opinion/counsel or critique, unless, of course, the one struggling point-blank asks for your input, which, even then, is seldom a request for you to solve their problems as it is a plea for you to recognize and acknowledge their situation, their struggle, their pain.

Eyes fill and shimmer with a rapid onset of tears, which until your kind gestures lie just below the surface of emotional struggle. Glistening eyes are voiceless expressions of gratitude that you bothered to take notice of their life and situation–“You can’t imagine how difficult it has been! But thank you for acknowledging and affirming my personal struggle and that of my family.”

From my perspective there exists an alarming incidence of walking wounded, at least in the United States, and I’m not even referring to the hundreds of thousands of war veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. People’s deep and “multiple woundedness” becomes horrifically evident for the entire world to see during moments of crazed acts of mass violence, but is no less present on “average days,” and in quieter, less visible ways and places.

As Harvard’s Diana Eck instructed her fellow Americans to “Open your eyes and look around you,” this, regarding the changed and rapidly changing cultural and religious landscape of the United States, so too, all of us need to open our eyes and look at the telltale signs of the many who share our life and work spaces, and who are living yet struggling on the brink of Help and Hell.

The immensity of social, mental health and emotional need often evokes donor or benevolent fatigue and a mindset of “What can I possibly do that will make any positive, let alone lasting difference?”

I say–

This week the world is commemorating and eulogizing one ordinary at birth, yet extraordinary human becoming and African man in the person of Nelson Mandela. Let our lives be his continued legacy. Don’t minimize or discount the potency and power of one! One kind word, one sacrificial act, one compassionate touch, one shared tear, one hour of shared conversation . . .

AP photos at WPRI.com

AP photos at WPRI.com

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