How Much Is Enough?

I spoke with my daughter this morning about upcoming preparations for the Christmas holiday and the things that are currently occupying her time.  Like the rest of us, she and her husband are busy with holiday tasks (some enjoyable and some less so), now with less than week remaining.  As both an attorney and a social worker, she also cited a few of the difficult circumstances with which she has become familiar over recent weeks: families with little to eat, children with few prospects for a Santa gift and parents who continue to fend off the stigma of unemployment during a very difficult employment environment (despite the assertions of certain political candidates).

At one point in the conversation, she observed her own discomforts of late, saying that despite the charitable gifts that she and her husband had made thus far during the season, she thought the gifts to be inadequate, insufficient, too insignificant to have any meaning for those who are in great need.   She wondered aloud if she was doing enough, whether she could be doing something more meaningful to make a difference in someone else’s life.  I noted that the tone of her voice had dropped rather dramatically by the time she came to this juncture as she envisioned just how enormous the “needs of others” really are at home in the U.S. and around the world.

Such reflections are not uncommon, perhaps especially at this time of year.  Yesterday morning my physician mused about the very same point, saying that he thinks of himself as an active “peace and justice guy” but  speculating about the threshold of sufficiency.  “Do I literally give the shirt off my back?” he wondered.  “How do I handle that with my own family?”  Wow!  Quite suddenly I have found myself surrounded by deep philosophical and moral questions relating to the poor.  Unfortunately, my own answers feel as insufficient as my daughter’s charity seems to her.

I suppose these kinds of topics come up due to the work that Winds of Peace Foundation has undertaken in working with the very poor in Nicaragua.  But I have yet to develop a satisfying answer to those who wonder if and how they could possibly make a dent in the needs of the world.  How can I even begin to clarify that question for others when it’s the same nagging uncertainty that I experience myself when confronted with the economic and social injustices that exist in the lives of those with whom we partner?  But as unsatisfying as it may be, I have acquired a perspective which at least allows me sufficient calm to get to sleep at night.

It is this: we are only and fully capable  of doing what we can do.  For Bill and Melinda Gates, the scope of monetary capacity is enormous and their resources can change the landscape of an entire region.  For a grade-school child, a visit to the local food shelf or nursing home can touch someone in ways that money cannot.  The nature or size of the gift is not how it’s value is measured.  Rather, it is measured against what we are capable of being or doing in someone else’s life.  It’s a cliched notion, of course, but it has only become trite through its universal and eternal truth.

I like to think of us as existing on a continuum, where every human being is placed according to his/her capacity to give, whether money, goods, time, spirit, or whatever else we have been blessed with.  We see ourselves as somehow being “ranked” on this continuum, thus frequently gazing upward and fantasizing about what it must be like to be “higher up” on the placements.  We fantasize about what we might be willing to do if only we possessed the money, the skills, the connections or the temperament of those higher up on the scale.  But what we must not lose sight of is that at that exact same moment, there are others on that continuum who are gazing upward at us, as well, and fantasizing about what they might be willing to do if only they could be in our shoes. Our reality is that we all have more to give than we do, more time than we admit, and a capacity for greater sacrifices to make without pain.

And perhaps greater responsibility than we like to admit.  The answer to the dilemma is to be found in our own hearts and minds, and will therefore be as different as we are from one another.  What we owe to ourselves- and the rest of the world around us- is an honest, thoughtful consideration of the quandry.  That exercise won’t guarantee the “right” answer, but we’ll never come even close to a right answer without asking the question….

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