On the International Day of Charity We Should Ask Ourselves: Can I Do More?
Desmond Fitzgerald is one of our longest serving board members and most loyal supporters. In this piece, originally published on September 5, 2019, in America, The Jesuit Review, he reflects on the importance of gratitude, perspective, and charity, and asks the question: “Can I do more?”
I just threw out a peach. It was badly bruised, all black on one side, with a patch of blue mold. But first, I cut out a salvageable piece and ate it with pleasure, grateful that at least a small part could be saved. Still, I could not help thinking: This peach, bruises and mold and all, could have saved some child’s life, at least for another day or two, perhaps longer, until help or food arrived. But the ocean, the half a world between my kitchen in Connecticut and South Sudan or Yemen or somewhere else where people are starving was too big to cross, at least for my peach.
Many of us have more than we need while many more people have much less than they need. We know this, and it sounds so simple. But what should we do about it?
Most of us like to think that we are people of goodwill—or at least that we are not bad people. But how we act in our daily lives often reveals a substantial gulf between our behavior and how we like to think about ourselves, a pattern known as cognitive dissonance. These discontinuities become very apparent with respect to charity. It is very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we are “doing our part” when we make relatively small gifts of our time or money, taking the pressure off ourselves to think energetically about the needs of the world. I struggle with this problem every day. I am not going to move to a hut in Ethiopia to prove my solidarity with the poor, but neither will I live here like a prince. But between these extremes, there is a lot of territory.
How do we find a way to enjoy the gift of our lives, the pleasures of this world, of friendship, love, art, music, nature, learning, while remaining always mindful of the needs of others?
How do we find a way to enjoy the gift of our lives, the pleasures of this world, of friendship, love, art, music, nature, learning, while remaining always mindful of the needs of others? This is not easy. We use respectful frugalities to ease this pain. I buy a $15 bottle of wine rather than something much more expensive. My car is 19 years old. These minor, symbolic gestures mask the contrast with the desperate needs of the poor. Am I behaving appropriately when my $15 could instead be buying Vitamin A supplement for 15 children in the developing world, saving them from stunting, childhood blindness and possibly death? The cost of five such bottles (soon consumed in my sociable family!) could restore the eyesight of a child blinded by cataract, transforming not only that child’s life but also her family’s. So should I only drink water? What makes sense? Where can we find a sensible balance?
There are so many needs, so many worthwhile causes, such a wide range of activities that seek and so often deserve our support, that we can easily feel overwhelmed. Where do we begin? How do we begin? How do we sort out our priorities? Even the biggest foundations and the most generous philanthropists do not have unlimited resources and are forced to ration their gifts. Meanwhile, the rest of us, with far more limited means, have an even harder job to figure out what we care most about and where we can be most helpful to those in need.
My own journey has led me away from contributing to large, wealthy institutions with large, wealthy constituencies toward trying to help desperately poor people in the developing world who typically have no safety net and few or no sources of support. For these vulnerable people, our resources can go a very long way, saving and transforming lives, often at a surprisingly modest cost. As much as I love art and music, I came to realize that I cared more about saving lives than about supporting exhibitions and concerts. Grateful as I will always be for the opportunity to have attended a celebrated university, I realized that my entire net worth would be a rounding error in the multibillion-dollar endowment and that the university’s large and enthusiastic community of supporters stands in stark contrast to the billions of anonymous poor in the developing world who have no wealthy constituencies to help save their lives or the lives of their children.
All of us are well aware of the desperate needs of the sick and the poor. Newspapers and television remind us of these needs every day, and yet what are we doing about them?
The practical realities are important. Suppose that you had a million dollars. If you gave 10 million people 10 cents each, they would be no better off, and you would be broke. Clearly, we need to think deeply about how we can best invest our time and treasure to repair the world—tikkun olam in Hebrew. And here cognitive dissonance reveals itself: the gap between what we think, or more precisely, what we think that we think, and how we actually behave is a source of tension in the lives of most thoughtful people.
All of us are well aware of the desperate needs of the sick and the poor. Newspapers and television remind us of these needs every day, and yet what are we doing about them? I, for one, am not doing nearly enough. Some people are, and a few shining examples come to mind: Chuck Feeney, a co-founder of the Duty Free Shoppers Group, lives modestly and flies economy while giving away more than $8 billion, his entire fortune, without seeking attention or praise. Zell Kravinsky, a Philadelphia real estate developer, gave his entire fortune to charity, and as though that was not enough, donated a kidney to a stranger. A nonobservant Jew and the child of Russian communists, he has followed Jesus’ command more closely than most Christians I know. These examples are inspiring but rare.
We can only give thanks every day that the world is blessed with so many women and men of goodwill, teachers and health care workers and many others who give their time and their resources and their love to the sick and the poor. Their generosity of spirit is a great gift to the world.
It has just started to rain. The heavy downpour is hammering on the metal gutters and the downspouts are flooded with gushing water. I wish that there was some way I could pipe this water to a place without water, a place, any place, where women and girls are forced to spend hours every day walking to fetch water, a place where children are dying every day from the effects of unclean water. Only this morning, I was worrying that my little grandson would get burned by the bright sun. Things can change so quickly. This rain is so desperately needed in so many desperate places. What are we to do? Pray for guidance, for courage, for strength? We have so much more work to do.