Tuesday, February 19, 2008


When I was a good deal younger I spent my fair amount of time watching television, like any normal child. Sure, the vast majority of the programming I was interested in wasn't exactly normal for a kid who should have been watching Transformers or Tiny Toons, but television is more or less television when you boil it down to photons and electrons, isn't it? I watched a lot of entertainment geared toward those much older than I. Documentaries and news programs were pretty much standard, very rarely did I ever opt to flip on a cartoon instead of say, The World Before Man: The Cambrian Explosion.

Which is fine. My parents didn't seem to terribly mind me being exposed to educational material on a daily basis, and it did help my grades in the end of things. But it meant that I was exposed to a large amount of advertising geared toward adults of the intellectual variety. Which meant scores of banks, software and travel advertisements.

But on occasion I'd see an ad depicting a lonely, starving and filthy child in a third world country and a large, white, fat man begging you to shell out a couple of bucks a day to pay for the little kid's booster shots so he can be healthy enough to write you a thank you letter in broken English. I'd occasionally ask my mom if we could sponsor a child in Malaysia or Chad, or where ever the big, fat white people decided to beg from, while holding a shivering, starving child.

The first several times she brushed it off, telling me that maybe for my birthday she'd surprise me, or that she'd talk to my father about it. But nothing really materialized out of my pestering. I never received a letter with a postage stamp from Burma or Costa Rica. We never put an expensive toy in the Toys for Tots bin at the grocery store. At the most we'd donate a couple of cans of soup at a food drive, but that was pretty much it. So I kept asking.

One day my mother and father sat me down, put on their parenting hats and gently informed me that we couldn't do what I was asking for. Why? I asked, more curious than anything. Who didn't want to help those less fortunate? Were they some sort of monsters? Or were they just incredibly selfish?

Well, my mother began. We can't afford to.

Can't afford to? We couldn't afford to buy one toy for the big box outside the grocery store? Or one coat for welfare?

No, my father began with a sad little laugh. You'd probably see it next time we go "shopping."

I was too young to really realize what my father meant back then. I was just a stupid little kid. So I left it at that. I only really realized what they meant as I grew up and began to become more observant of the world around me and how most of my class mates were different. Their parents didn't shop with brightly colored stamps. They always had newer, less worn in clothing. Their holiday presents were much more elaborate than anything I'd ever experienced.

The truth of the matter was my parents were dirt poor almost all of the time. We shopped with food stamps, we received federal food stuffs, my holiday season was populated by Toys for Tots and we "shopped" for my winter coats at our local welfare office. Despite both being fully employed year round, my parents were always struggling to be in the black at the end of the month.

The only time I saw anyone in my family give to a charity was when my father died. My since disowned "aunts" decided to donate $100 in my father's name to a diabetes foundation, instead of helping my struggling mother pay for his funeral (at the time, unknown to me my mother was very much in debt, due to my father's expensive medical issues).

So, suffice to say donations and charities are still a sensitive subject for me. I really don't like giving or receiving pity or handouts. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth, like admitting defeat, or that one party is inferior to the needy group. As arrogant as I may be, I don't like to think I'm better or inferior to anyone else. But it's been seared into my mind.

The moment I left the nest I became bogged down in my own financial woes and it's continued to this day. I've only started to work myself out of the enormous multi-generational slump. To this day I've never really given charity more than a couple of dollars a whack, and even then I feel forced and awkward. Like I'm a bad person if I avoid eye contact with the old army vet looking for handouts outside of the grocery store. Or screening my calls because the local police department needs money to host youth activities.

Which is not to say that I'm against charity. Quite the contrary, I'd love to help the local SPCA or help diabetes research, or provide some manner of relief to those in situations I've found myself in. I just don't like being approached and being put on the spot and guilt tripped while I barely have enough as it is.

But at what point is it wise to start channeling a portion of my income into a worth while cause? When my debt has been entirely eliminated? But at that point, wouldn't it be more wise to invest the same amount of money, so I'm capable of donating even more in the future? And what would do the greater good, giving gift cards to grocery stores to the homeless, or kibble and blankets to the SPCA? Or a big check to the Wildlife Conservation Fund, but be unable to see the results and potentially risk it being lost to administrative drivel?


Joan said...

Another great post Ed! Good job!


Anonymous said...

Our childhood does affect us - doesn't it?
Your questions on charity are interesting...
I see where your coming from, totally. I personally don't donate to solicitations from charities. I want to donate to whom I want to donate too. Not who rings me up, emails me, or knocks on my door.

Especially when I was struggling with my own financial affairs - such as you are. It feels offensive and does put one in a defensive frame of thought.

What I did when I couldn't afford to donate cash money, was to find non-money ways to give. For example- I donated blood, prepared food for a community meal, recycled, etc. There are a multitude of non-money ways to give. And I would recommend giving of your time or talent if you can. I know how busy you are -so pick and choose what you can do. But, every little bit does help in a Karmic sort of way. I really do think what you give, comes back to you even bigger. AND YOU WILL TRULY FEEL GOOD GIVING...
And the money thing... even dropping a buck here or there to help somebody out IS GIVING! I wouldn't get hung up on dollar amounts at this point in your life. Your perspective on giving and charities will grow as you grow. There really isn't a one size fits all... you'll know what will work for you and your family!

Ed said...

Dawn: I completely agree with the non monetary donations. I'm certain I could get a position at my local SPCA. But time, for me, is even more precious than money.

But I must admit that I'll have more time in long before I have more money, so that's probably what I'll end up doing in the long run.


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