Wednesday, February 10, 2010
The yardstick problem
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...