Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Such Great Philanthropy

Darling…of course she’s fucking with you…It’s a way of life here for people to try to get the most money they can out of visitors. It’s how everyone survives (Gilbert 320).

Liz learns a very unsettling lesson about human nature, immediately following her greatest karmic triumph. She manages to pull together $18,000 using her extended network of friends, to help out Wayan, seemingly bringing her journey full circle. She has finally healed enough that she can begin to repay those who have helped her. However, Wayan attempting to milk her for more money threatens to sour the experience for Liz.

Charity is something I have always struggled with. My father always taught me not to give money to panhandlers. He has managed halfway houses and in his experience addicts do not begin the steps to a real recovery until they hit a true “rock bottom.” My giving them money not only gives them money to feed their habit in the short run, but also delays them hitting bottom. Still, I’m often conflicted, and having no backbone I often give. Either way I suppose I win. If I give money I feel good. If I don’t give, I can feel wiser than those who do, and comfort myself knowing that I’m truly helping that bum achieve moral virtue down the road, something that the others don’t realize.

Of course I’ve heard Ayn Rand’s theories that there can be no true charity since people derive enjoyment from helping others. The first time I suppose I really had to confront my motivations for philanthropy came on my trip to South Dakota between my junior and senior years of high school.

If I was ever idealistic, I suppose it was tarnished by a Christian service trip, something that was meant to make my Jesuit classmates and me more loving, committed to justice, open to growth and so forth. We had done soup kitchens and the works, but we were all really pumped to be helping some legit poor people this time. Yep, these were the Sioux. As much as the Native Americans got the shaft in our country, they were about as close as you can get to real poverty without going to a third world country (after all, you can’t really be poor in America just lazy right?). We drove to Eagle Butte where we’d be building houses for Habitat for Humanity. We were positively giddy to see trailers with no plumbing and hear about 80% unemployment rates on the reservation. This charity was the big time alright.

Our first job was painting the house for Gerry, the head of Habitat. Our next was putting a deck on the side of Ted-his-assistant’s house. Then we laid down some linoleum in Gerry’s kitchen. By the third night, my friend Nick and I went on a tirade in group reflection. We’d come however many thousand miles to do odd jobs for the people in town who least needed it. Other families didn’t have running water, did Ted need a deck (fyi, he made some side money selling pot out of his house)? The teachers who led us had no real control over what work we were assigned and tried to calm us down as best they could. I’m not entirely sure the other members of our group caught onto just how much we were being used, but most joined us on our rant.

Eventually, we resigned ourselves to the fact that we had to go through with whatever work we were given. At least the trip fulfilled our forty hours of obligatory-volunteering to graduate. In retrospect I think what had made Nick and I angriest was a sense of entitlement. I had felt entitled to those warm fuzzies I saw on my classmates’ faces, the ones who had gone to Jamaica and gotten to hoist smiling orphans on their shoulders. Where was my orphan-high?!

Granted, I really did want to help those 80% unemployed, but honestly, what difference would I have made? The main anger came from being robbed of that experience.

When we got back to school I had it out with Father Joe on the issue. He explained that the reason we worked on the houses of Gerry and Ted was because Sioux were poor at organizing their labor. They had failed to line up enough real work for us and what we did was busy work. Father Joe reminded me that what makes poverty self-perpetuating is the inability for the people to manage the resources that do come their way. We hadn’t been used, just mismanaged (and Father Joe saw to it that the group next year did have real work lined up for them).

I empathize with Liz. She was almost robbed of the experience of getting those very karmic fuzzies, seeing Wayan and her children in a good house. Eventually, by standing her ground she does curb Wayan and get her in a house (after all, she still does seem like a nice girl, one who has just been overwhelmed by money, money that she has no experience with or context to relate to). As cliché a way as it is to tie things together, I suppose in both of our cases it should have been the thought that counted. The rewarding buzz felt from doing a good deed I suppose shouldn’t be looked down upon. Probably no one would ever be helped if it wasn’t for the feeling their benefactors get from doing righteous deeds.

I apologize for such a dark ending to our homeland blogs. As for a thing that has surprised me about homelands readings, I think it has been the ability the authors have to make me empathize with these far-away peoples. Virtually all of them have had some pretty rough existences, but without any real ability to help them (and subsequently reap Ayn Rand’s benefits) I can only relate to them. I really see it as a credit to the authors that they have been so successful in helping me relate to characters I have little in common with culturally. The readings and discussions have been an exercise in connection to these cultures.

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