Almost daily, I feel the guilt of having resources in a place where so many do not. By some standards, I am living very simply, but I have enough money left over at the end of my necessities to buy myself name brand shampoo, coffee and treats, and trips to the beach.
When I make these purchases, my conscience tugs at me. The other day, I bought a pair of shoes for about $15, and immediately felt a wave of guilt. I had just read that 2/3rds of Hondurans live in poverty – making less than $15 per day. I had one day’s wages in my hand and I chose to spend it, not on improving the lives of the poor, but on shoes, which I didn’t really need.
In the mall, I asked myself, Would this $15 I spent on a luxury have been better spent on the hungry? while also being very aware that I did not know where the hungry were or how best to feed them, when I knew very well where the mall was and how to buy shoes.
The uncomfortable reality is that for most of us, the poor and the marginalized are abstract concepts. We give to them through the filters of organizations, if at all. We talk about “the poor” without knowing who we are talking about, without knowing their names or their needs or their unique gifts. It feels impersonal to give to them, if vaguely altruistic. Faced with that or new shoes, it is much more satisfying to go with the shoes.
We may have grown up hearing the goading of, “Clean your plate, there are starving children in Africa,” while suspecting that whether we finished our peas or not had no causal connection to the empty stomachs of hungry children. Instead, statements like this planted in us a sort of useless guilt, I had better enjoy what I have, we tell ourselves, because other people aren’t so lucky. It is guilt without impulse, gratitude without responsibility. People return from missions trips overseas with these trite statements: “They had so little but were so happy – they made me realize how lucky I really am.”
The causality between our own actions and the lives of others is distorted and confused. I spend $1 on coffee, and I drink it immediately. I put $1 in the offering basket at church, and its influence is diluted throught the gifts of others, its evidence not immediately clear.
As much as I’ve spent my life in nonprofits, I’m still clumsy and uncertain about donating. It often feels abstract, my $20 only a drop in the pool. I may be passionate about the work done by organizations with million dollar budgets, but I can’t see the results of my donation in the same way I see shoes on my feet, an ice cream cone, or a plane flight home.
My guilt battles something more basic – a desire for psychological satisfaction. I want that thrill or warmth of buying a gift for a loved one who will appreciate it, for people grateful to me, for visible change. I want that rush of emotions that tell me, this good thing was caused by me. This selfishness or self-absorption battles with my better instincts, my memory of someone who once commanded “Sell all you have and give to the poor.” Not to the grateful. Not to the worthy. The impoverished – the poor.
But I have student loans, Jesus. And my old work shoes were scuffed. I need this meal out with my friends for my own emotional well-being. And don’t direct hand-outs really just foster dependency?
I want to give, is what I’m saying, Jesus. I just think maybe you’re asking too much. I already work for a nonprofit. I moved across the world. I buy dinner for my host family. I teach kids for free. Isn’t that enough, Jesus? Isn’t that enough?
I want to say we must make giving easier, more transparent, we must be able to see directly the results our money earns. Let’s make a website for it, let’s make an app. But perhaps that’s only falling to an impulse that wants to make helping others about our own satisfaction with ourselves.
Maybe instead the answer comes closer to knowing who the poor are, and understanding their needs. Joining with organizations that you trust, and giving in the faith that your outcome may take years.
If I am in communities of need as often as I am in malls, I trust that the opportunities will present themselves. I hope that when they do, my wallet will open as impulsively, as readily, as it did for that pair of shoes.