Friday, June 12, 2009

Generosity in a Time of Need 12/24/08

This will be an anxious Christmas for many people.
In the run-up to the holidays I’ve been preoccupied with the plight of a family member fallen on hard times. Our family has tried to figure out how to help.
We’re not unique. I spoke to an older friend recently who teared-up while telling me a similar story. His son and daughter-in-law have both recently lost their jobs. He is helping them out financially and stressing over it as any parent would.
The morning paper and evening news shout that layoffs are as common this season as Christmas cards, foreclosures are on the rise, and in the back hallway of my office, we’re slowly filling photocopier paper boxes with canned goods, cereal boxes, diapers and jugs of apple juice collected for local food banks.
My immediate family has been blessed and is financially secure, for now.
When I think about the needs of others, my mind often falls back to my brief college stay in London. At first, the homeless on the streets of that big city got a lot of my spare change. On Queensway, halfway between two Underground stations, a wiry old man in threadbare clothes danced a jig for passersby while another elderly man crouched beside him playing a harmonica. I passed them every morning and tossed money in the hat.
But slowly I became like locals, avoiding eye contact with the man who slept in a sleeping bag along an alley opening or moralizing about the punk-rocker kids calling out at street corners for “spare change.”
My excuse: “If I gave spare change to everyone who asked for it, I’d be broke before I got home each day.” But in truth I was tired of being bothered and tired of the moral dilemma of wondering whether I was funding much needed food or enabling a substance abuser.
Being callous is so much easier than caring.
After Katrina hit a few years ago, we pondered how our family might help the victims. A 5-gallon antique bottle sits beside my dresser, into which I empty the change from my pockets each evening. Over a year or more it had grown half full and we resolved to send its contents to the Red Cross. My teenage son, Cal took the mountain of change – a couple hundred bucks, I figured, to the grocery store change machine. The plan: he would bring the money home and we’d send out a check.
But it turned out the change machine display screen had an option allowing him to automatically donate our change to Katrina victims. Cal pressed the, “yes” button and proudly brought home the receipt for tax purposes. I looked at it and my heart jumped. The change bottle didn’t hold a couple hundred bucks, it held over $600.
“You gave away $600?” I gasped. “I wanted to be generous, but not THAT generous!”
Cal shrugged, “What were you going to do with that money? You didn’t even know how much you had. Those people need it a lot more than we do.”
I wanted to lecture him about giving away my money so easily – wanted to tell him what my father always told me when complaining about government spending, “It’s always easier to spend someone else’s money,” but I didn’t.
The televised images of people standing on roofs waving to helicopters for rescue, sweating it out in the Superdome, and entire neighborhoods obliterated by flooding had all had an effect on Cal. He hadn’t simply been careless with my money, he’d given it away quickly so I couldn’t second guess and retrench and keep some of it for something frivolous like dinner out at a restaurant or a handful of music CDs.
There are a lot of people these days waving for rescue. From regular folks to big corporations, people are hurting and media pundits are moralizing over who deserves help and who doesn’t.
Sometimes when we insist on “tough love,” perhaps we focus too much on the “tough” and not enough on the “love.” I’ve been guilty of that.
In this Christmas season, those of us who are blessed might best represent the season by erring on the side of humility and generosity. As the hymn says, “Let there be peace on earth, and it begin with me.”

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