Sunday, June 18, 2006

An Expectation of Gratitude

I want to start with a disclaimer: We don’t have a lot of money.

We have three children. Surprisingly, a career in the military doesn’t pay very well, even though my husband has devoted the last 18 ½ year of his life to it. Because our children are still so young, it would cost as much to pay for daycare as I could earn at most of the jobs I can find in the various places we’ve lived in the past 12 years, so instead I do freelance work at home. I like the work, it’s been portable (which is fortunate, since we move every three years), and it’s let me stay home with the children. But most years I make between $6,000 and $8,000, so my job carries more of an intellectual reward than an economic one.

Having said that, though, I also want to say that we have everything we need. There has always been enough to eat in our house (even if our pickiest eaters would disagree ---- “What’s THAT?!? I can’t eat THAT!!!”). We each have drawers full of clothes that we like and that don’t embarrass us in public. Every Christmas I have to beg the children’s grandparents not to send quite such a huge mountain of toys. Although it never really covers all of the expenses, the military housing allowance has always helped us find places to live that have kept us safe and comfortable. And, perhaps most important, we have adequate health care.

Best of all, we have each other. We play games together, pretending we’re astronauts or butterflies or a marching band, we go places together, to the park or the bakery or the swimming pool, we read books together and dance together and sing along to “Chicka-Chicka-Boom-Boom” together (there’s a wonderful DVD with a song by Crystal Taliefero). We don’t take vacations to Disney World or (god forbid!) own a PS2, but we look out for one another, and drive each other crazy, and bicker and complain and sometimes whine, and we kiss one another good-night, every night. All in all, we are incredibly fortunate.

Every year, during the holidays, I start to think about how very fortunate we are, and try to find ways to give some of our good fortune back to the world. This past year, I was doing some research about charities (which I’ve written about before, so I won’t repeat) and decided that, in addition to our other one-time donations, I would commit myself to supporting two of the groups year-round. I chose Save the Children, because it has a great institutional record of channeling most of its donations into the field, and because it doesn’t push a religious message with its aid. Why should a child be forced to choose between her own religious traditions and the chance to learn to read? So now I’m sponsoring a little girl in Nepal who is the same age as my middle child. The money doesn’t really go to her, individually, but towards a project in her village, but having a specific child as a point of contact makes your donation feel a lot more personal (which is why, I’m sure, Save the Children does it this way). As a donor, you’re encouraged to correspond with the child you’re sponsoring. At first, I thought this was a little artificial. After all, would a 5-year-old want to write to an American woman no doubt older than her mother? What would we have to say to each other? But, surprisingly, it’s been very rewarding. I write to her about once a month, and usually try to send a small present (like hair bands, or a coloring book, or stickers --- things my own daughter likes), and after the initial transit-time delay I started getting heavy handmade-paper envelopes with beautiful stamps from Kathmandu. Someone from the Kathmandu office takes my letters (translated) and gifts to the village of Asanpur, and writes a letter back to me “from” the girl (since she’s too young to write yet, it’s a smoothed-out version of her answers to my questions, and her comments about the things I send). Sometimes they send print-outs of digital photos the field worker has taken of the little girl. I have about half a dozen of these letters, with Nepali script on one side of the page (Nepali is written with the same characters as Sanskrit) and the English translation on the other. Of course I save them. Wouldn’t you?

At the same time, I chose a second organization. I’d read an article in National Geographic that described how much more effective aid was when it was given to the women of a community rather than to the men. (Again, I’ve written about this before, so I won’t go into the details.) So I looked for a place that would channel my donations into the hands of a woman who could use them to improve her own life and the lives of her children. Women for Women International is a remarkable organization ( --- you should look them up). They have programs in places where women have been most seriously affected by war or internal violence, places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Colombia. This program also matches a donor with a “sister” who will be receiving the program’s rights-awareness training, vocational and technical training (to help women find ways to become more economically self-sufficient), perhaps a microcredit loan, and a monthly stipend. I started writing monthly letters to my sister in Rwanda at the same time that I started writing letters to the little girl in Nepal. This time, I thought I would have more to write about: we’re about the same age, both mothers with several children, both recently moved away from our homes. After writing the first two letters, I started using the organization’s email feature, thinking that the mail time to Rwanda might be extremely long and that email, while less tangible, would be faster. But although I have half a dozen messages from a remote village in Nepal, I haven’t heard a word from Rwanda.

And so this is the question that I’ve been asking myself: Is gratitude, or even acknowledgement, a necessary part of the act of charity? I think about how busy my life is, how much I have to do every day, and I haven’t been forced out of my home by the economic hardships created by genocide. I don’t have to try to take care of my children on my own, in a strange place, and I’m not trying to balance all of those things with the additional time it must take to go to all of those rights-awareness and vocational-training classes. So I wonder, if I needed a loan to get a small home business started in order to take care of my children, or if I needed some extra help in a new town to feed my children and get them clothes to go to school in, and some women showed up and said they could help me as long as I agreed to go through their training, wouldn’t I agree to whatever they wanted? And if they said, here’s the person on the other side of the world who has so much that she’s giving her money away, and you’re supposed to write to her, what would I think? Would I resent the letter-writing chore? Would I resent the rich woman who felt that she needed something from me, when my days were already so full with just the effort it takes to keep my family together? Would I think that rich people can’t give anything for free, but always ask for something in return? Would I feel disdain for this “sister” and her pretence that she and I have something in common?

Is it wrong of me, to value these letters from Kathmandu, and to wish that a woman in Rwanda would talk to me? Is it symptomatic of some latent colonial mindset that I wasn’t aware I had? Do I need for my gifts to be acknowledged in order to feel good about having given them? Certainly, the other donations I make to organizations that make no promise of “sponsorship” don’t raise in me any expectation of thanks, apart from the official letter from the home office thanking me for my money and asking me for more. And I wouldn’t stop sending money to Women for Women, just as I wouldn’t stop sending money to Save the Children if I didn’t get any more Sanskrit-etched envelopes. Maybe what bothers me is the possibility of disdain, the idea that my act of compassion has become something selfish, seen from another perspective. Should I stop writing letters to her? Or have I imagined this all wrong --- is she, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to answer me but still finding some comfort, or at least a momentary distraction, in these messages from a woman in another world? If that’s true, and I stop writing, would it seem, not as if I’m removing the implied demand that she reply, but as if I’m giving up on her? I don’t know how to accomplish what I want to do, which seemed so simple when I started: to share what I have with someone else.

Does it matter, when you stop to give a homeless person a couple of dollars, if he (or she) says “thank you” or gives you, instead, a stony stare? It shouldn’t, but I think it probably does. Instead of walking away with a warm feeling of having done a good deed, we walk away feeling a little irritable and disconcerted. But maybe that irritation is a good thing, as long as we don’t allow it to discourage us from offering our dollars the next time. Maybe we SHOULDN’T feel satisfied after having done something meaningful, yes, but small. After all, that person doesn’t cease to be homeless after our act of generosity. Even if we were all Bill Gates (for whom I have nothing but admiration), we still shouldn’t feel as if we’ve done enough while, clearly, so much of the world is still suffering. What if the thanks just allows us to salve our conscience, and to do so cheaply? What if all we’ve done is purchased a feeling of happiness for ourselves from a homeless person for a few bucks? Maybe we really do deserve the disdain, for allowing a world that includes homelessness (and illiteracy, and genocide, and violence against women and children) to continue without working actively to change it. But it’s very hard to behave with perfect compassion, to meet indifference or disdain (even if it’s deserved) with greater effort. I feel it, too, the urge to walk away from that feeling. After all, I was trying to do something nice; if the poor expletive-deleted doesn’t have enough sense to be grateful for a little help, then expletive-delete him (or her). But even as I say it, I know that’s wrong. No doubt, I’ll never really be able to do enough. Even Bill and Melinda won’t be able to do enough. But I have to continue to believe that even doing a small thing is better than doing nothing, and to believe that the act of doing is the important thing, and the reward.