What do we owe one another?

Donations (Photo credit: Matthew Burpee)

In 1984, Canadian writer, academic — and later politician — Michael Ignatieff wrote a book, “The Needs of Strangers”. In it, he says:

“A decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good. The one our society lives by — a language of rights — has no terms for those dimensions of the human good which require acts of virture unspecifiable as a legal or civil obligation.”

In the United States, those who give money to charity, it turns out, are least likely to give it to those most in financial need, writes columnist Eduardo Porter in The New York Times:

Religious organizations receive about one-third of the nation’s total charitable contributions, not including donations to religious hospitals, schools and social charities. Donations to human services charities, by contrast, which work to ease poverty, feed the hungry and the like, amount to less than 12 percent of the total.

It’s a question I ask myself frequently — what, if anything beyond our taxes, do we owe to others in our world, whether that’s in our town, county, province/state, country, hemisphere?

Others’ needs for help are boundless and our individual resources with which to alleviate them — unless we are very wealthy or have no need, ourselves, to earn a living — extremely limited.

In the same edition of the Times containing Porter’s column is the full-page ad announcement of a multi-million gift to a college, bearing, of course, the generous donor’s name.

Asks Porter:

As the government grapples with how to address the nation’s deficits over coming decades, Americans have an opportunity to reassess the role of philanthropy in addressing the nation’s problems. Should we continue to provide lavish tax breaks? Should we demand that in return for preferential tax treatment, programs target more clearly the needs of the poor?

Many Americans might think that keeping tax breaks for donations to build, say, a new university football stadium when so many poor students can barely afford college, is not the best way to spend scarce resources.

Those on the right end of the political spectrum scoff at the notion of handing money to the poor and indigent, arguing that it merely enables them to continue their shiftless, lazy behaviors. Those on the left feel it’s immoral to let needy people starve, suffer and die from restricted or non-existent access to the basics of human dignity: food, shelter, medical care.

Last week my church, a small Episcopal parish in a wealthy town north of New York City, held its annual clothing sale, in which we donate our own clothes and shoes, for adults and children, sell them for low prices, then distribute the money earned to local charities. I worked a few days at the sale, and a few people asked when prices would drop to half-off, when they could better afford a wool hat at $2.50 instead of $5, or a pair of leather shoes for $7 instead of $14.

We raised more than $50,000, far more than if we’d been asked to open our wallets individually.

It’s humbling and sobering to see what sale shoppers need and can afford, and somehow ironic that the sale depends on volunteer labor — all the stay-at-home mothers with high-earning husbands flee at 2pm to pick up their children — and the only people who can offer their time are retired, unemployed or, in my case, who work freelance and may have a flexible schedule.

Those who came to shop included parents buying children’s clothes, teens snapping up fun stuff and a nun in her habit who, after I folded and bagged her sweater, asked with a smile: “Do you do closets?”

For many of us, the world has become a place where we rarely encounter, touch or speak to people whose lives are circumstances are unlike our own, whether richer or poorer. We attend different schools and colleges — if at all — travel by different conveyances, shop in different stores.

The clothing sale brings us together in a week-long fellowship. Like many people in this economy, I’m liquidity-poor, but time-rich.

I also serve on the board of a 30-year-old volunteer group that offers aid to non-fiction writers who have hit a financial crisis. We can mail a check for up to $4,000 within a week of getting an application. Usually, they have suffered the “triple whammy” — they’ve lost work, lost their health and lost the financial support of a spouse or partner.

Every letter we receive is a “there but for the grace of God” experience.

If I didn’t have a generous, loving husband with a steady job and excellent health insurance — which so many people do not — I might be writing one of those letters myself.

Few of us will escape our lives financially unscathed, without a crisis in which we desperately and suddenly need help from people who do not know, or owe, us — a dying parent, an ill child, a lost job (or several), a hurricane or flood — or both.

Poverty, misery and physical devastation are frightening. They smell bad. Storm-ravaged houses, crying children, old people huddled around a trash can fire. No one wants to be that person.

It’s easier to pretend they don’t exist than meet them face to face, seeing in their weary eyes and lined faces the existential terror that, one day, might be ours.

Blaming the poor and indigent is an easy out. There are few quick, simple solutions, as the miserable and angry survivors of Hurricane Sandy are still learning.

What do you think we owe one another?

Are taxes the only way to re-distribute funds from the better-off?

Do you do volunteer work and/or give money to charity?

19 thoughts on “What do we owe one another?

  1. I was raised in a family where you give of time and money. My father had only one rule: if you tell someone what you have done, it doesn’t count. So you must give of yourself or financially in ways where no one knows it is you. It is harder than you think to give that way, but incredibly satisfying and fun. I find the more I give of self, I receive ten fold.

  2. I always cringe a little at the idea of owing. It never feels good to be in debt to someone or something else.I try to give even when I have little to offer (of course, I have stingy/ selfish days, too), and I think the trying part of it is key. Give without strings attached, no name plastered on a donated gym, no philanthropic award. Just give because you can and it’s a good thing to do 🙂 I always loved this Rumi quote:
    “And still, after all this time, the Sun has never said to the Earth,
    “You owe me.”
    Look what happens with love like that.
    It lights up the sky.”

  3. Hurricane Sandy has left so many in devistation. My husband has several friends on the shore where each weekend he bring gas & the generator along with his muscle and “know how” to help gut the damaged houses. I usually feel quite useless to be honest, and then my clarity hit. I am the reason he can do this. I take care of our house, children and new puppy while they need him on the shore. It may seem insignificant in the bigger scheme but its not me they need, it’s him. I usually tend to groan as he needs the endless back messages for the sore muscles, but now that’s part of my giving too 🙂 . I hope as the holiday season comes and goes people continue on the shore to help, it’s going to take a lot to rebuild and repair, it’s heart breaking.

  4. The larger challenge for some people is to acknowledge that suffering even exists. It’s too easy to ignore it if it’s not in your face or those around you are uncaring and selfish. I think compassion has to be modeled behavior.

  5. “There but for the grace of God” indeed. It is a blessing to be able to contribute. Thank you for this thoughtful highlight of the immense abundance of everyone who has a computer with which to read and respond to this. 🙂 Happy Thanksgiving.

  6. Pingback: 4:23 am. And, Inspired… – Lead.Learn.Live.

  7. It’s easy for the rich to look down on the poor and blame them for their own circumstances. It’s true they believe you wind up with no money or home because you’re lazy and just want to live off someone else’s labors. And yes, there’s an element of that in every society, but they don’t account for a large percentage of people in all countries of the so-called developed world who have lost their jobs or their health or their ability to earn a living. Somehow, society has lost its way. We need to get back to caring for people and finding happiness. Otherwise, what’s the point?

    1. I find a lack of compassion just about the most repugnant behavior in another person. Every single one of us has received help along the way, if “only” from within our (intact, healthy, solvent and educated) families. That’s a lot more than many people even get starting out…

  8. I totally agree we have an ethical responsibility to share our good fortune, skills, knowledge and money with others. I wouldn’t usually beat the drum of a specific cause, and I know that Sandy has created Havoc in the US, but perhaps others haven’t heard of Kiva (http://www.kiva.org) which helps those in need help themselves by gaining economic independence. I really believe in this “charity” because it’s a loan, not a donation, and it helps those very much in need.

    You also donate your time and skills to the blog, raising issues of importance to challenge you readers’ thinking, educate them about writing and the media, and on matters like this one, inspire us into action. Thank you.

  9. This is great article, thanks for sharing. In regards to the people I see when I’m volunteering at shelters and pantries, it always astounds me who is there. Of course there are those who (judging by appearance alone) you’d expect to be there, but there are also people you wouldn’t expect. The single-mothers, the newly-wed couples, the exchange students.
    It’s a very sobering but fascinating experience to be surprised by the people in need of help and really inspiring to hear their stories.
    It’s a great way to obtain a new perspective on life and the world that most people don’t get the opportunity to hear.

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