Holding hands with the “haves”

I’ve been involved in fundraising for many years now.  Currently, I work in a social services non-profit targeted at improving conditions at the local level.  It’s an interesting time and place for my particular agency.  We’re fortunate to be in a city of great wealth. 

There is old wealth, the money that has been stewarded through generations and is interwoven into the core identities of those who are alive today, situating themselves to pass this wealth as seamlessly as possible to their progeny.   Many of these families have also integrated concepts of philanthropy into their values systems, which are passed down through the generations as well.

There is also substantial new wealth, often sudden wealth, blossoming from being in the right industry at the right time.  Many of these families are excellent at looking like they’ve got it all together.  But when you scratch the surface, you find underneath something akin to bewilderment.

They’re savvy with their money, certainly.  They hire financial planners and tax advisors and accountants and lawyers, and they talk to their wealthy friends and colleagues, and they nimbly navigate the world of investments, stock options, tax law, and the like. 

They’re savvy with their health.  Their trim bodies can be seen running through their neighbourhoods, along the river, and through their parks.  They belong to the expensive gyms, or they have enviable home gyms in remote rooms of their spacious houses.  They ski, they cycle, they play tennis, and they ride horses.  Their teeth are white and straight.  They eat more than five servings of fruits and vegetables daily.  They shop the gourmet boutiques for the freshest produce, free-range poultry, and so on.

They’re cutting-edge homeowners, often opting for the more expensive environmentally friendly building and decorating materials.  Their homes’ architecture often takes advantage of our scant Northern sunshine, and they hire organic landscaping companies to maximize the beauty of their lawns while protecting the soil.

Okay, I envy them.  I admit it.  I’m saving up money to get my teeth whitened – my 44-year-old mouth just doesn’t have the gleam it had 20 years ago.  I shop at the all-natural-food store only once a month to supplement the Safeway fare, because I can’t afford to shop there all the time.  I’m a member of the cheap gym, and I don’t go often enough. 

But when I hear some of these people who are newly wealthy talk about their children, I realize that we are essentially very much the same.  And for those of us who are parents, who and what on earth could possibly be more important than our children?  Nothing.  Nothing at all.  So, our highest values are very much in alignment.  We might disagree politically or religiously, but when it comes to the most important, number one piece of our lives, we agree.

It’s not that hard for my daughter to understand that some children don’t have it as well as she does.  She understands because she sees children who seem to have it much better.  She understands the concept of “no,” and understands the frustration of an unfulfilled wish or desire.  She can easily turn this around in her mind to the child who must always hear “no” and who can only wish for toys.  She’s also beginning to understand that there are children in this town who are hungry, right this very minute, and that there is no food forthcoming.   Although she has wants and wishes, as we all do, she understands that we are a very lucky family.

Families of new wealth remember their own childhoods, their own sense of unfulfilled wishes paired with gratitude for what they did have.  Some worry that their own children won’t grow up with that understanding.  Of course, some families decide that this is a good thing.  They enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that their children will grow up with every advantage, superior to other children, and that their children will “win” the game of life.  Or perhaps they grew up in poverty, and are determined that their children will never suffer that pain and indignity.  Can we blame them?

But some parents actively seek lessons for their children to teach them the importance of sharing.  They want their children to understand and appreciate how very lucky they are, and to not take their lifestyle for granted.  These parents take their children, when they’re old enough, to homeless shelters to serve a meal, and encourage them to participate in Christmas toy drives, or to accompany them to charity functions.  They strive to teach their children a sense of civic and community responsibility that comes with wealth.

Sometimes it’s easy for such parents to foster a sense of guilt in themselves and in their children.  Haven’t we all felt this at various times in our lives?  If you’ve visited a developing country and have been greeted by throngs of beggars, you probably felt this.  You can’t possible give something to everyone – should you give something to one or two and deny the rest?  It’s easier to turn a blind eye and march through the throngs without giving anything to anyone. 

Guilt is probably at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to feelings.  Dr. Wayne Dyer, in his book entitled What Do You Really Want For Your Children, says that guilt is “the weapon of the weak.”  Guilt, in my opinion, is the most crippling of all emotions.  This is not to be confused with genuine regret over an action or condition, accepting responsibility, and makint amends.  The feeling of guilt is accompanied by hopelessness, shame, and unworthiness.  Nothing positive can be nurtured from this place.

Yet we seem to want the rich to feel guilty about their wealth.  Have you ever heard anyone say something like “Mrs. Jones is the richest woman in town.  I’m so happy for her!”?  I have not.  In fact, we often equate “rich” with “selfishness.”  When rich people have problems, we sarcastically say “Oh, I feel really sorry for them.”  If rich people have sorrows, complains, failures, or set-backs, as a society, we’re hard-pressed to eke out any sympathy for them.

As a fundraiser for a social services non-profit, I’ve often been jokingly lauded for being like Robin Hood, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor.  When I try to explain that this isn’t reality, I’m told that it’s absolutely true, because we must use guilt to extract wealth from the wealthy, mustn’t we?  Why else would they give?  And there shouldn’t be a problem with that.  The rich are fair game, those selfish bastards, right?

Interestingly, many prosperity and finance gurus tell us that our own biases about wealth and money are what prevent us from becoming wealthy ourselves.  Too much money would make us like “them.”  We’d be shallow and selfish.  People would talk about us behind our backs.  Nobody would forgive us for being rich.  We would be lonely and mean.  We would go to Hell.

Virtuous people know that money isn’t everything.  Money can’t buy happiness.  Money can’t buy health.  Money can’t buy a longer life. 

Tell this to mother who hasn’t eaten in 3 days in order to be able to feed her children one box of Kraft macaroni & cheese for three days.  Money can’t buy happiness, but it sure as hell would eradicate some of the misery. 

And money can’t buy health?  Last night CNN ran a special feature entitled “America’s Killer Diet” during which the point was made that lower-income neighbourhoods, largely populated by minorities, have less access to fruits and vegetables and more access to junk foods.  Dr. Sanjay Gupta revealed that there literally are not enough fruits & vegetables being grown in the U.S. for everyone to eat their daily recommended 5 servings a day.  Who gets the fruits & vegetables?  Disproportionately, the families who can afford them.

Money can’t buy you a longer life?  Take a look at the life expectancies of populations around the world.  I’m not even going to bother citing sources here – you can google it yourself.  You can bet your sweet bippy that the people in poorer nations have shorter life spans.

It’s no wonder we consider the rich to be fair game when it comes to guilt. 

However, those of us in the non-profit sector know first-hand the awe of accepting a donation of transformational magnitude.  We have the extreme privilege of engaging with some of the world’s most generous and caring people, and yes, many of them are wealthy.  And many donate anonymously.

One might argue that it’s certainly easier to be generous when you’re wealthy than when you’re poor.  On a certain level, this is true.  If you’re merely subsisting from day to day, or even hour to hour, your acts of generosity might be to pick someone up who has fallen, or to share a drink of water.  When you don’t have much, giving anything at all is a higher percentage of your total capacity than the person of great wealth who gives a generous donation well within his or her capacity.

But it is a mistake to devalue the generosity of the wealthy, just as it is a mistake to assume that their generosity springs from guilt.  And when it does come from a place of guilt, it is the duty of the non-profit professional or volunteer to move them away from this place to a place of “contribution.”

“Contribution” is a very different word than the word “donation.”   We use them interchangeably.  But “contribution” indicates something value-added.  A contribution denotes a willingness to have something of one’s self to be synthesized into a greater whole.   We don’t say “A lot of people donated to the success of this project.”  We say “A lot of people contributed to the success of this project.” 

So let’s turn our attention to the wealthy minority of the uncaring or the blissfully unaware.  Certainly they exist, just as there are really nasty poor people.  Are nasty rich people fair game for tools of guilt?  Might we treat them with contempt until they mend their ways and show remorse for their excess?

In her book The Soul of Money, Lynne Twist, global activist and executive with The Hunger Project, writes of her dream come true, a much-anticipated audience with Mother Teresa.  All her life, she had dreamed of this opportunity, never believing it would actually come to pass.  It was with great joy, awe, and humility that she talked with Mother Teresa at the Old Delhi Orphanige – but not for long.  They were interrupted by an obviously rich couple, most likely tourists, who complained that they hadn’t gotten a picture during a previous visit.  They burst in loudly, ordered Mother Teresa to pose for a photograph, and the woman even had the gall to put her hand on Mother Teresa’s chin to tilt her face towards the camera.  Mother Teresa accepted it all calmly, and when the couple left, returned to the conversation with Twist as if nothing had happened.

Twist, however, was understandibly indignant and outraged, so much so that she could barely focus on the remainder of her interview with Mother Teresa.  She was in tears when she left.

On her way home, she began to reflect upon Mother Teresa’s calm acceptance and her own distress.

I had always thought of myself as open and compassionate with everyone everywhere, but now I saw my own bigotry and prejudice against the rich and powerful.  These were not my people.  These were people I could not embrace and include in my circle of love.  They were rude.  They were ugly.  They were disgraceful.  I also could see now that this chance encounter with this wealthy couple, behaving as they did, enabled me for the first time to confront and know my own prejudice.  I could not have imagined the power this lesson would come to have in my life.

Soon afterwards, Twist wrote a letter to Mother Teresa about her anger and resentment, along with her confrontation of her own prejudice.  She received a hand-written response in which Mother Teresa chided her for allowing her expression of compassion to flow only to where it flowed easily – to the weak and the poor.   The “vicious cycle of poverty” is well-known.  What is not well-known is the “vicious cycle of wealth” and the accompanying suffering of loneliness, isolation, and the hardening of the heart.  She finished by advising Twist to give the world’s wealthy as much compassion as anyone else and to become their student and teacher.

We must welcome those with the resources to get things done.  We must open our arms and our hearts to them and invite them to be part of the solution, and even to lead us towards the solution.   We must not allow guilt to be part of the equation, but must gently guide towards joyful contribution.

And who is a “have”?  If you life in North America, have a job, a home, eat three times a day, and have a little time left over for a hobby or quality time with loved ones, you are most certainly a “have.”  There are people on this planet who have no concept of your abundance and good fortune, and they would trade anything for what you call problems.

This is not to make you feel guilty.  This is to make you appreciate.  This is to validate what you are probably already doing to make the world a better place. 

We must all hold hands.

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About this blog . . .

Greetings.

I’ve given much thought to philanthropy, kindness, life purpose, and anything with melted cheese on it.  After decades of rumination, it’s time to begin writing about the first three.  (The cheese blog must wait.)

This blog is for people who, like me, search for meaning in our work and in our lives.  It’s for volunteers, philanthropists, non-profit professionals, and/or otherwise very kind people who, in spite of the seeming futility of it all, are compelled to pursue lofty ideals around making the world a better place.

It’s also about examining ourselves, our attitudes, perceptions, habits, beliefs, and everything else through which we filter our experiences of the world.  Many of us are so externally focused that we forget to do the “inner work” necessary to save ourselves, let alone save the planet. 

This blog will feature articles and ideas from the “charitable” sector, as well as essays and reasonably well-crafted philosophies from yours truly.  It will also feature self-development and self-discovery resources and ideas to assist and perhaps even challenge us as we synthesize our life missions with the mundane daily routines of the “real” world.  (I love that expression – the “real” world.  Everything else is just a dream.  They wrote a song about it.  It’s called “Row, row, row your boat.”)

Thank you for visiting this corner of cyberspace.