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Location: California

I love paper. Books printed on acid-free paper and bound in cloth turn me on. I'm crazy about bookmarks, and I buy too many stickers. I could spend hours in the build-your-own-greeting card section of my neighborhood craft store. My favorite thing to eat is bread, and my second favorite is fruit. (Mm, pineapple.) I read too much and too fast, and I watch too many food shows (two ways of looking at gluttony). Gloomy, rainy weather calms me and so I can't wait to move out of California, which will happen, sadly, too many years from now to count. I'm vegan, though I haven't managed to eliminate honey from my diet yet. I practice yoga; it's the only way I can keep fit. I have a better life than I ever imagined I would (or deserve to) have, but I do my best to enjoy it rather than feel guilty about it. That's my daily struggle -- and also to be thoughtful and observant and honest with myself.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Charity

After the Revolution of December 1989, when the Communist government was overthrown in Romania, one immediate change in my city was that the streets became overrun with beggars. Young and old, aggressive and timid, crippled and whole, alone or with a cluster of small children with tear-stained faces swarming around them, they squatted at street corners, shuffled along the sidewalks, patroled parks and bridges over the river. Some had dogs with mangy coats of fur and servile barks. I was afraid of them. I was fascinated by their smells and clothes and the cunning bandaging of their lower legs against the upper to give the illusion of amputation. I didn't always give them money. I felt guilty when I didn't. And I felt guilty when I did. I was always able to spare some change; my life was good, my parents financially solvent and generous with my allowance, and my heart easily wounded by the suffering of other people. Why begrudge someone a loaf of bread, even a bottle of brandy if what they really wanted was to get drunk? Why not make a little happiness possible, if I could?

For a long time I belived passionately that the poor and needy and suffering are Christ disguised, and that charity towards them translated into love for God. That made giving charity very simple. Mindless, I want to say now. And it troubles me. I can no longer hand over money without thinking through the consequences of that act. And this has led me to paralysis. I don't want to contribute to the huge bureaucracies that are part of some charitable organizations. I don't want just to hand people money; I want to be part of a system that helps them get on their feet and be self-sufficient. I don't want to be a thoughtless hand that puts a tiny band-aid on a huge wound just to feel good about it, nor one that solves a little problem now and in the process creates a bigger problem for tomorrow. My heart aches. But my head doesn't let me act. It reminds me that I've done some stupid things on impulse, driven by good intentions. For me, that old saw about the road to hell being paved with good intentions doesn't refer to failure to act on the good intentions, but failure to act on them rationally. I've seen my mother make bad decisions many times out of a sincere and impatient desire to do good. I've made some bad decisions that way, too, and these mistakes haven't ceased eating at me.

I am a recipient of charity. I went to a private liberal arts college that costs thirty thousand dollars a year to attend, and paid only a very small fraction of that amount out of pocket; the rest was provided by scholarships. My family lived on welfare for the first year we lived in America, and all the furniture and household appliances, even the car, that we used those first few years in America were given to us by family and friends. Except for the scholarships, I resented all the help others gave us; it came with so many strings attached. I promised myself not to do that to anyone else; better to abstain from giving, and from the self-righteous feeling it gives you, than to place that kind of burden of obligation and of feeling small on somebody else. That's, to me, the fundamental problem with charity: that nine times out of ten it is not truly charity, not truly an expression of caritas towards a fellow human being. And I think that shows in the results that charity has. All the "charity" money that has been poured into Africa, just to take the most blatant example, has accomplished little in terms of long-term economic improvement, of bettering the quality of life and health and ability to become self-reliant of the average family. People see fly-studded faces of starving black children on television and write checks out of guilt. Their main motivation is to allay their troubled consciences more than it is to feed starving children. Much more is required to feed starving children than a fifty- or hundred- or thousand-dollar check. But writing and mailing it is much simpler than rethinking how our world economy works, than stopping to consider how our habits halfway across the world affect what's going on in the countries with starving children, than changing those habits.

My most pressing problem is that I don't know enough. I feel that I have to study as hard and thoroughly as I can a whole slew of subjects -- economics and political economy and ecology and psychology and philosophy -- before I understand what charity can do, good and bad, in the world, and what the best, or at least the least bad, thing to do is to help those who need help. And I'm daunted. I don't have enough time and enough mental energy for that. But where is it going to begin, if it doesn't begin with me?

1 Comments:

Blogger Brie said...

I like what you said about the need to rethink our habits and their effects on others on the other side of the globe.

Personally, I feel that doing the little we can to help someone else is the answer. Keep throwing in your pebbles!

Brie @
NeedyWorld.blogspot.com

November 11, 2006  

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