As a little girl, I used to watch those infomercials about starving children in Africa and bawl my eyes out. Not only did I feel sorry for these little ones with the bloated bellies and sad stories of being orphaned – I also felt an enormous burden of guilt on my young shoulders. After all, my family lived in Kenya for a few generations but we immigrated to Canada with memories of white sand beaches and siestas and late night feasts. The beautiful handiwork of the African natives travelled with us and became pieces of nostalgia in my Canadian home. Among them: curios and carved wooden chests, straw mats, wooden salad tongs, tripod tables with animal designs. We listened to upbeat Swahili music that had messages of family, joy and a zest for life – in my mind Africa was a continent of beauty and creativity. This was not reflected at all on T.V. On top of all that, when I told my peers my family was from Africa, I was met with looks of pity and comments like, “But you’re not starving.”
I was embarrassed to say I was from Kenya because no 6 year old likes to be placed in a glass dome and stared at for being different. But I also struggled with the conception that certain groups of people were to be pitied for not ‘having as much’ or ‘knowing as much’ or ‘being able as much’.
I dislike the idea of an ‘us’ and a ‘them’. It makes me feel stuck, pinned to a place on a continuum based on someone’s perception of how fortunate I am. Or how unfortunate, as the case may be. It feels judgemental, condescending and dim.
I don’t see a linear relationship amongst the people of the world. If anything, historical and present events have shown that what happens in one country has an international effect.
Doesn’t that seem more circular to you?
It does to me.
In this circle, every single person has some kind of need, and every single person has some kind of gift. Our job isn’t to judge a need or a gift as good or bad, but to keep the exchange flowing so that needs are taken care of, and gifts are being used to their very last drop.
I have to admit that expressions like, “Don’t waste food – there are some people in this world who don’t have anything to eat!” have rolled off my tongue before I could stop them. Ugh. Might as well be saying, “Here, have a big dollop of guilt on that baked potato!” But after our trip to the Surrey Food Bank last month we had a family discussion about being ‘helping hands’ so that others can have the energy and health to help even more people. And that was much easier to swallow.
Charity is a hand UP, not a hand OUT. Whether I am on the giving or receiving end of the process, this perspective carries with it dignity, hope and grace.
What can you do for others that will allow them to help themselves and their community? And what is it that you need to help you be a contributing member of your society? As an individual, family, small or medium enterprise, or large corporation, these are questions you should be asking.
P.S. For help with a community giving project like this one for Canuck Place Children’s Hospice, send me a note. I love working with individuals and groups to find effective and soul-satisfying ways to be a part of the giving/receiving circle. If you are an entrepreneur, please read 5 reasons why every business should be charitable.