Beyond Giving

As the holiday season ramps up, giving in all its forms is pervasive, which is as it should be.  We give to our families, our friends, our communities.  My children’s monthly community outreach project is a toy drive, and they’ve each generously selected some new and gently used toys to contribute.   There is a giving tree at church, so we have donated new toys in this way, too.  The local library is collecting food (and offering fine reduction for donations); my husband’s work has a giving tree; and I think the fire department also collects toys and stuffed animals.  The point is that there are very many opportunities to give, and all of them are good.  We should be giving charitably at this time of year, when so many of our holidays are focused on consumption, much of it conspicous. Certainly, I want my children to be generous, to grow up with charitable natures, to be aware that very many others are not nearly as privileged as they are.  And so far, thanks to our church, their school, our activities over the years, this message has been mostly absorbed.  My 6-year old son didn’t think twice about donating duplicate presents he recently received. But he did balk at donating a dinosaur puzzle that I think he’s outgrown and a strange building set that seemed like good idea but hasn’t seen much play.

But there has to be more than giving, and I don’t mean simply that we should give back year round, not just at holiday times when organizations and schools make it easy.   Charity really only deals with symptoms, not with causes. Just as some of us feel ethically obliged to give, I think that we’re morally obligated to fight for justice.  Without trying to change the root causes of economic injustice and other inequalities, charity can be cosmetic.  This was the surprising message of the sermon in our church last week, on the second Sunday of Advent.  In the middle of the season of giving and charity, and collecting coats for the homless-all necessary, admirable work–our pastor actually said, yes, charity, but we have to do more. He talked about the necessity for change, and specifically the need for immigration reform. He did not mention the DREAM act, not in so many words, but it must have been on his mind.  This is the thing:  the Catholic church is not a single issue church.  And it never has been. Charitable work goes hand in hand with social justice work.  Our pastor and many others in our area have been involved in campaigns for social justice, a living wage, immigration reform, for years.   In many ways, his call for peace with justice is the same call that many secular organizations make.

It is an attitude and a way of life that I want to instill in my children: give freely, but also fight for justice.  I’m not sure where to start (they’re 8 and 6), but we can start in our own backyards by teaching them fairness, equality, respect for each other.  We can start small by talking about things like fair pay and fair taxes and why we think the DREAM act should be passed.    And I can challenge myself to be more engaged, because really it isn’t enough just to leave those presents under the tree at Church.  Unless one of them is Helen Thorpe’s amazing book, Just Like Us, which should be required reading for anyone who cares about the immigration debate.  Her inspired story and first-rate reporting follow four talented girls through high school–two documented, two undocumented, chronicling their (unequal) fortunes and their futures.  The story will inspire and haunt you.

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Back to the Future

Yesterday, in the New York Times there was a  piece about the state of mind of the next generation, the one coming of age now, during this recession, that every day promises to be longer and deeper than we could have imagined.  How will the current dire economic straits affect them, psychologically? What will it mean for their job prospects, their attitude toward work and personal economy? Their sense of opportunity and possiblity?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, too, mostly in the form of long and angry rants about How We Have Come To This, and What Will My Children Inherit?

The last bit has nothing to do with money.   Rather, it seems to me that my children may very well grow up with the shadow of economic instability, recession, a legacy of greed and mismanagement that destablized what was, not so very many years ago, a stable and prosperous economy.  Should it take 10 years or so to pull out of this mess, they may live a good chunk of their childhood, into adolescence with the specter of a trembling economy.  They’ll see boarded up businesses, too many houses for sale, long lines of unemployed.

My daughter already knows, through her school, that our local food banks are running low on food (we’re trying to remember to donate weekly), that some people have lost jobs and houses. There is a large, very run down trailer parked not far from our home. We suspect someone may be living in it, but we have no hard evidence.  How can these facts not affect her view of the world? If the recession continues, how can its very real fallout not shape, even in a small way, her sense of what is safe and what is possible?
There is some evidence that diminished economic prospects can offer creative opportunities.  That less lucrative work might lead to a kind of generative freedom.  And yet, I find myself, sometimes, wallowing in the muck of wondering what will their future be, and how badly have we already screwed it up?  Can we reclaim that boundless sense of possibility that I so dearly want my children to have?

On the one hand, I know realistically that every generation will face its tribulations. But on the other, I find myself in the grip of that time-worn, protective impulse, one I didn’t even know I had:  I  want them to have it better.  Not so much better than her father and I have it, but just plain better.