Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The yardstick problem

Last night I was in the local pharmacy and ran into a dad I know. I asked after his kids, and he said one of them was sick. Then he picked up a made-in-China florescent green plastic ring from a display on the counter and mused, "I wonder if I should bring her a ring."

I replied, "Nah. Send the money to Haiti instead." He (and everyone else nearby) looked startled for a moment, then nodded. As the dad left he said, "I'll tell her that."

Can you tell Haiti's on my mind?

My mental back burner has been simmering for weeks now, trying to connect certain dots that don't want to form a coherent picture:

Dot #1: Children (and adults) in Haiti are suffering unimaginably, and are going to continue to suffer for a long time to come.

Dot #2:There's not really anything left in our family budget to cut. I can't give out of fat; if I'm going to give, it has to be out of flesh and bone.

Dot #3: My kids have certain needs that reflect their natural gifts (and natural weaknesses). I have an obligation to do my best for them.

A couple of things are gradually dawning on me. One is that when I think of what ingredients can go into a "solve the inequities of the world" pie, I don't include a substantive decrease in my family's standard of living as an option.

A related reality is that although I am not, by American standards, an ungenerous person (we do aim to give 10% of our income to charity), my ideas on what it means to be generous are limited by a large hazy zone between need and want. The other day I idly thought, "If I gave up drinking coffee, I could probably save a child's life with the money I saved over a year."  

Give up coffee?! My reaction to that thought slammed me up against the reality that, on some I-don't-want-to-go-there level, my morning coffee is more important to me than someone else's life.

I've long been aware that I suffer from what I call the Yardstick Problem. I have a tendency to assume that the yardstick of well-being begins about a half-inch below where I am, and extends upward to where everyone else seems to be. In the big city, where there are people who have a lot of money, this is absurd. I need to constantly recalibrate my thinking to remember that I live in the top two inches of the yardstick.

I recalibrate mainly by bringing to mind various stick-to-your-heart anecdotes that I've picked up over the years: the volunteer speaker from Food for the Poor who told of a boy who cried as hamburger patties were being handed out, because "It's my sister's turn to eat today"; a vignette from a book on Mother Theresa, which mentioned in passing a family that slept in shifts in their shack, because there wasn't room for everyone at once; the series of stories the NY Times ran in 2006 about easily preventable diseases like Guinea worm, blinding trachoma, measles and lymphatic filariasis, and how they cripple and destroy lives.

I tell my children that the first step in becoming a thoughtful person is to become an observant one. You can't help the old lady get into the shop with her walker if you don't notice her struggling. I can't do much to rectify the problems of the world if I don't notice how stuck I am in myself and my inch of yardstick. One place I'm stuck is in thinking I'm not among the rich, just because my budget doesn't flow as smoothly as it used to.

People can feel poor no matter where they are on the yardstick.Some people feel poor because they can't go on vacation one year, others because their life is dominated by a constant struggle to juggle bills and cash flow. I have a friend who confessed to scrounging change from the sofa cushions to buy pasta for dinner on night, and another who has foregone dental care for years so that she can pay for her kids' dentist. But these are all a far cry from being unable to treat a serious medical problem, or having your kids go hungry because you can't feed them. It's a long way from being homeless or in danger of dying from lack of food.

It's helpful to examine what we think is iconic of being poor, because it helps us to calibrate the richness of our lives relative to the rest of the world. It gives us a way to remember how blessed we are... and how much we have available to give to those who have less.

More on this another time...


  1. this is very thought provoking...and convicting. thank you for boldly saying what we all need to hear.

  2. Thank you for said it better than I could have. When my husband met me, he never thought about the amount of clean water he uses for a bath...that so many people have never even seen that much clean water. I've talked so much about the poverty of others, and every little thing we have as being totally amazing...and thanking God just for a warm bed and a quiet place to live with no war going on outside my door...and that I can bath and have running water that won't kill my children; that now my husband thinks the same way too. Even in our hard times of living off Kraft dinner...I've always told him that our idea in Canada of poverty is so wrong because we have so many resources here, like: food banks, welfare, salvation army's, etc. no one here really suffers the way some do. It's when I think of children working 16 hours shifts, bent over making bricks for a penny a week...that's what breaks my heart...that's the reality of real suffering...because children should be able to just be children...and I can only imagine what their parents must feel knowing that their child has to work like a dog just to get a little food...sitting in a dump all day looking for scraps, etc. In North America when we have children, we make their nurseries pretty and we get an RRSP set up...we don't usually think about whether they'll have to work harder than most farm animals!!!

  3. Dear Julia, Thanks for reminding me of the suffering by the people in Haiti. Your reference to the yardstick seems to put things in perspective for Americans. We have to stop complaining! I don't think we have to stop drinking coffee (say 2 cups a day), but we do have to keep the poor and the weak in our thoughts and prayers. And we have to act in their best interests. God bless you.

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