Sunday, December 31, 2023

Guilt and Gratitude

Charity can be complicated.

I feel as if it shouldn't be, since even a small good deed adds good to the world, and if I have any philosophy about how to live my life, it's to try to make things at least a bit better for someone each day. I try to lead with compassion along with reason and fairness.

But the world can be cruel. The unfairness and vast disparities run rampant.

A lot of what I know about charity I learned from my grandmother. She was a social worker in an upscale community in Ohio, and her stories were fascinating. Some people's struggles are exposed for all of us to see, and other's can be hidden behind the facade of a fancy house. She ran a food pantry out of her basement, and she'd fill in the gaps from her own cupboards when donations fell short. 

She told me it was common during the annual drive to provide Christmas presents to families in need, that someone would withdraw their donation when they discovered they didn't get to watch the recipient get the gift. My grandmother was unwavering about keeping people's identities confidential because she believed they should be allowed to maintain their dignity, not put on a show to make people with more means feel special. That made a big enough impression on me that most of the giving I do is never something we could get a tax deduction for. It's all pretty much under the radar, helping people as I come across them in an average day. I don't need anyone to see me doing it. Most of the time, no one does.

I struggle with where the line is between living my life the way I want, and providing more to people in need. I saw someone online once describe how the problem with improving the situation for the poor was never going to be solved by people who thought it was more important to give their kids braces than to feed the hungry. I'm not sure what to do with that concept, but it stayed with me. Because I have three kids who all needed braces, and I provided them as part of my desire for my kids to have healthy, decent lives. 

I don't think the average person would argue with that decision, but what if we move the line a little? My kids have more than they need. They don't ask for much. And I know for certain if I'd told them instead of presents this year I was giving that money to someone in need, they would be happy about it. But I still liked surprising them with some gifts. Doesn't mean I also didn't provide something to someone less fortunate, but should it have been more? 

My grandma didn't seem to struggle this way. She liked keeping a nice home and doting on her grandchildren. She helped people and also lived a comfortable life. I wish she were still around to have a conversation on the topic, because it wasn't something I'd thought to ask her about when she was alive. I have a sense she would say that if I gave away everything, I'd have less ability to continue to give over the long haul, than I would if I invested as I need to in my health and business and family to keep all of those things functioning well.

Guilt and gratitude sometimes feel like two sides of the same coin. So much of where I am is luck, but I work hard. I try to remember when I see people in different circumstances that it wasn't just that I made good choices, but I had good choices. I know to appreciate what I have, but wonder how much of it I should be giving away for a greater good.

There are a couple of homeless people in my area that I have tried to give assistance over the years, but it's never enough. How could it be? Their needs are so huge. I've learned a lot recently about what kinds of resources are in our city for the homeless, and where the system falls short. I think about how grumpy and awful I feel when I don't get a good night's sleep in my nice bed and warm house, and then wonder what kind of wreck I'd be if I had to try and sleep on the ground in the cold. A week of that and I imagine it would be hard to climb out of a very sorry state. Then I look at spare, warm spaces I own and wonder how I could do things differently, but it's hard. I'm not really equipped to handle certain problems, especially if there is the possibility of putting my business or children at risk. I think about instances where men I know have been able to offer rides or a place to shower to people in need, and how foolish many would think it was if I as a woman tried to do the same. I try to find other ways to help where I can still be mindful of certain boundaries.

There were other things I was hoping to write tonight, while looking back on one year and looking forward to the next. But this is where my mind is lately, wondering what is selfish and what is earned. I am so grateful to be here in our home with my husband and all three kids and our sweet dog tonight. We did a repeat of our Thanksgiving meal and watched Dr Who. When I'm done with this post we're going to play a board game inspired by a drawing my mom made several years ago, with rules that my oldest worked on all week. We'll drink sparkling grape juice at midnight, and hug, and eventually crawl into beds with clean blankets and special pillows. I'm grateful I got to spend Christmas with my mom who is healing well. I'm grateful for incredibly smart, kind, and funny friends. 

I love my life. It just breaks my heart every day that for so many life is more struggle than joy. I want to make it better, but there's so much to be done I get overwhelmed. And ask myself if I simply lack the courage to do more because maintaining this life I'm lucky enough to have, requires so often looking away.