So I read this article over at xojane.com, the neurotic internet home of “stuff it never occurred to you to worry about before, but will after you read this article.” (Another recent mind-boggler: “Is your hair professional enough?” Which wouldn’t have concerned me even when I was still working; if it’s combed and clean, it’s professional enough; then again, things may be different in NYC, in which case, I’m glad I don’t live there.)
Anyway, the topic was whether or not you were an “overgiver” and whether your generosity might be ruining your friendships. My reading of this article came hot on the heels of a recent discussion of generosity, reciprocity, and pride with a friend when I paid the dinner check. So I read it, because it’s quite possible that I might be seen as an overgiver.
And, contrary to the theories put forth by the article, it is not because I’m a people-pleaser. (Have you MET me?) And it’s not because I want to buy friends. It’s because at heart, I am a communist in the purist sense of the word as I understand it. I really believe, “From each according to his/her ability, to each according to his/her need.” (K. Marx) It informs the way I approach my life, from my marriage to my friendships to my politics. I believe in sharing. I believe that all of us should take care of each of us. I know there is more than enough of everything we need to go around, and it’s only greed and fear that make that seem an impossible dream, if not entirely incomprehensible as a concept. I believe that what is equal is not always fair, and what is fair is not always equal, because I understand the benefits conferred by privilege, and that the playing field isn’t level, but we can do more to make it so.
For myself, it means that if it is in my power to make your life better or easier, because I have goods, time, energy, knowledge, effort, or cash to spare, then I want to offer those to those who need it. I don’t give away what I cannot afford, financially or emotionally; I’m probably not going to give you the shirt off my back. But if I have two shirts, or more, I’ll absolutely give you one of them.
Because I understand the concept of “enough,” and I’m fortunate to have enough, and then some. And I can share the “then some.” And I do. It’s not about showing off. It’s not about hurting others’ pride. It’s that if I’m in a position to provide what people need and want, without hurting my own circumstances significantly, I want to do that. Because why the hell wouldn’t I?
The other day, I was at the grocery store. The man ahead of me didn’t have much on the conveyor belt, but the woman in front of him did, and he started chatting me up about my tattoo. We had a brief conversation about tattoos, wherein he shared that he had done several of his own, and I shared that I’d never dare, because my hand wasn’t that steady. He said he needed practice victims, and while I didn’t volunteer, I suggested he find potential canvases amongst the young and broke, who get crappy tattoos on the cheap that they’re destined to regret in 15 years anyway. He liked that idea.
In the meantime, the gal had rung up his stuff, and he swiped his debit card, only to have it declined. He tried it a second time, as a credit card, and still it was declined. He seemed flustered, and embarrassed, (and I felt for him, because when I’ve forgotten my checkbook, or have a problem with my credit card, that’s how I feel, too), and he was fixin’ to walk away from the transaction because he had no other option. I peeked around to check out the screen, and saw his total was $5.45. He’d bought an onion, a pepper, a package of rolls, and a single beer. I told him I had him covered.
I didn’t do it so I could toot my own horn about it in this post. I didn’t do it for his thanks, which was profuse. I didn’t do it because I’m a saint. I did it because I had $10 worth of premium garlic and parmesan kettle potato chips in my cart, and the idea that someone else should go without a less-than-$6 dinner when I’m spending nearly twice that on mere snacks is obscene to me.
I did it because you never know when someone’s at the breaking point, and the tiniest lucky break, the tiniest indication that all people aren’t heartless assholes who’d just as soon look right through you, might make the difference for them. I did it because I remember being broke, deeply in debt, and stressed out because of it, for long stretches when Scott and I were both still teaching, and a $50 check out of the blue from my folks made a world of difference, letting us go out to eat for the first time in months, or pay a bill we weren’t sure how we were going to cover, or get groceries when there was too much month and not enough money. I did it because I believe when you have more, you have more to give, and it’s only right to do so, instead of clutching everything you value to your chest, screaming “Mine! Mine! Mine!” like a toddler, and hitting, biting, and scratching anyone who suggests otherwise.
And because this is where I’m coming from, I really don’t understand it when people, or politicians, want to talk about how we can’t afford to feed everyone, or can’t afford to educate everyone, or can’t afford to keep people alive with health care they need. Life, food, and a basic education…these are things I don’t think are even negotiable. Nobody should go hungry in a nation where we pay farmers not to grow crops. No one should die just because they can’t afford a medication, or a life-saving treatment. I recently had to help a friend write a letter to a drug company begging for relief when the cost of his meds, meds that mean life or death for him, went up nearly 900%. 900%. Life-or-death decisions should not be made based on the balance in your checking account. I will never understand anyone who thinks they should.
I don’t understand when people who want to tell me every single day of my life what’s right and moral think it’s okay for people to drop dead because they can’t afford food or medicine, or that people should just live on the streets if they can’t pay the mortgage on a house the bank can’t sell anyway. That in a nation, in a world, with vast wealth and resources, some human beings are prepared to decide that other human beings who do not have access to that wealth and those resources are not even deserving of drawing breath for another day, let alone to do so with a full belly and decent shelter.
Personally, I think that’s pretty much the bare minimum we ought to want to do for each other. I’ll chip in for a thousand imagined welfare kings and queens without complaint if it means their children eat and are not on the street.
I got caught up in a documentary that happened to be on when I turned on the TV yesterday about the long-term unemployed, who have been told by companies in so many words that if they don’t currently have a job, they shouldn’t bother applying for existing openings; who have run out of unemployment benefits after 99 weeks despite beating the streets every single day for a job; who are losing their homes. How can we, if we are people of conscience, write off millions of people who ARE trying, and still can’t catch a break? People who are checking their life insurance policies for riders regarding non-payment in the case of suicide, in the hopes that they might be able to help their families by giving in to the ultimate surrender. People who have no family to help them and nowhere to go, and who will not be able to qualify for apartments anyway once they’re evicted from their houses because they have no jobs and no prospects. People who have been unemployed for 2 years and counting, turned away for being overqualified to flip burgers, even though they’d be happy to do it. No one I know has ever been unemployed for more than a few months; until I saw these folks telling their stories, I had no idea how bad it was out there for so many people.
And they are people. And that’s the point. Do we owe it to other people to help them out of their various jams? Probably not. But I have to ask, doesn’t basic human compassion have to come into play at some point? Is it really so impossible to accept the reality that, sooner or later, we will all find ourselves under the wheel if we haven’t already, that our turn for misfortune will come, and that if we all take care of each other, it’ll all even out in the end?
I really believe it must. And if it does not, it will not be because those with the least still need, but because those with the most refuse to share the abundance that is available.
I remember being 18 years old, sitting alone in the TV lounge of my dorm in 1990, the first time I heard George Michael’s “Praying for Time,” when the video came on MTV, and by the end of it, I was weeping. As I wrote this post, it came back to me.
So you scream from behind your door
Say what’s mine is mine and not yours
I may have too much but I’ll take my chances
‘Cause God’s stopped keeping score