I really believe that Americans are some of the most generous people in the world. I also believe that Americans are some of the most selfish people in the world. And I most certainly include myself in these statements. I know, it’s confusing.
As a whole, when a crisis occurs, as in the 9/11 tragedy, America pulled together. We were united in our desire to help our neighbors, loved ones, friends, and strangers. We willingly emptied our pockets and our hearts to help those who were so closely affected by the terrorist attacks on our nation. It was a beautiful thing to watch perfect strangers reach out to each other in a way our nation has not done before. Sometimes it was done through organizations like American Red Cross, but in many cases it was just one person offering a helping hand to another. It was endearing and noble, and selfless. It was charity in perfection.
Recently we received the first of many Christmas giving catalogs. We like to support organizations that are helping to feed, clothe, and train people out of poverty. I often have tears in my eyes and a huge lump in my throat as I look through these catalogs. Not just because of the moving photos and heart-warming success stories, but because I look around my own house and see nothing but excess. We’re not rich by any American standard. We’re solidly middle-class. We work hard for what we have, and we have more than we’ll ever need really. And yet I often find myself using sentences like, “I need a new pair of shoes,” or “I need to get my hair colored,” or “I need some mums to plant in the yard for fall.” Of course these really aren’t ‘needs’, just wants. But in our American mindset these are often treated as needs. As a whole, and yes, this is a very broad statement, we are a needy, selfish bunch of people who live in excess rather than necessity.
The reason I get teary eyed looking at these charity catalogs is because I see people who can truly live and thrive with the most meager and humble of possessions. The gift of a single goat to a family in Guatemala can change their life monumentally. It seems like such a trivial thing to us, and yet these are people who can build a business out of one animal. They can feed their family. They can help others. It’s just a single goat, not world peace. But that’s the key. They don’t need world peace to make a difference. And neither do we. It just takes one person, doing something for someone else to make that difference.
I’m sure I don’t have to say it, but the holidays are fast approaching. Kids are already starting to get those Christmas catalogs too. The ones filled with toys and games and gadgets. Already phrases like, “I need a cell phone,” or “I need a new PS3,” or “I need a new Macbook” are starting to fly around. And the sad thing is, they really believe they ‘need’ these things too. Just like I believe I need mums for the yard or another pair of shoes.
But what we really need is to develop a sense of charity. We need to look around us and be more sensitive to the guy standing on the street corner holding a sign asking for help. We need to realize that shelters in our community are filled with people who truly have no place to go. That families are being torn apart by violence, drugs, alcohol, and abuses of other kinds. These are our neighbors, our loved ones, our friends, and even strangers. And sure, there are people out there who are playing the system. There are genuine crooks, scammers, and bums who want to take advantage of the compassion of others. And that’s okay. Some day they’ll have to answer for their actions, whether it’s here or in eternity. But we have to not worry about being ripped off. We have to stop expecting the worst of people. We need to train ourselves out of the mindset of “I need…” and start thinking more along the lines of “how can I help?” It starts with us. Not with Governments. Not with foundations. Not even with churches. Just us. If we want to change the world we have to start doing it ourselves. Charity needs to begin in the heart. It needs to begin now.