Sunday, December 07, 2008

A Failure of Compassion.

This is the time of year to think about the better qualities of humanity, such as charity and compassion. The problem is that some of us tend to get pretty depressed when we make an objective assessment of ourselves regarding these traits. I have extended family that I would rate very high on these factors. They are conscientious people who make significant efforts to consider the plights of those less fortunate than them. They organize benefits to address social ills, and invite people to their houses to participate in doing something good. These affairs not only bring local folks together, but they also contribute to meeting the vast needs of the poor and downtrodden. Mostly I admire them for doing something to help.

With Christmas coming, my in-laws are now trying to rethink traditions. Every year we have a gift exchange, and each person goes home with something that someone else brought. We set a money limit and even run a concurrent gag trade. This is not an uncommon practice, and saves us from having to buy presents for each individual separately. It also gives us something to do on the 24th of December. But this time around, my sister-in-law came up with an alternative suggestion. She sent out an e-mail documenting some of the terrible conditions that others face in third world countries. Her idea was that we skip the exchange this year, and donate the money we would have spent to the charity of our choice.

Obviously the birth of Christ should be celebrated with actions that run deeper than a consumerist orgy of spending. If we were truly honest in our faith and respect for the Son-of-God, we might strive to follow his philosophy and give to the less unfortunate. However this threatens to take the fun out of Xmas. Let's face it- we get a charge from taking home luxury items that we didn't buy ourselves, especially when we didn't even ask for them. Why would we give up these time-honored activities? Sure, there are people starving somewhere, but is that our problem? Don't we have enough to concern ourselves with during this period of economic downturn? Don't we have a responsibility to go out and shop in order to "save our nation"?

I'll freely admit that I'm not particularly charitable. I don't spend a lot of time thinking about the destitute and disease-afflicted in far flung lands. I won't even give pocket change to homeless Americans nowadays. At some level my perspective can be distilled to "better them than me". I'm not proud of that, yet I can't defend self-deception. I've said it before and I'll repeat it... humans aren't that special. They have no innate right to survival at the expense of other living creatures. And we perpetuate our survival by exploiting the Earth and all of its inhabitants. That's just the way it is. If I participate in sending food to a region that can't support its current population, who exactly am I serving?

And yet... my lack of so-called "humanity" occasionally gnaws at me. That's why, against my better instincts, I never bitch about paying taxes. I realize that a lot of that money goes into the pockets of corrupt and greedy politicians, and more of it feeds monolithic corporate interests, but at least there's a minimal amount being diverted to assist fellow citizens. I'm glad that there are people willing to sacrifice their time, resources, and energy to improve the lives of others. That type of self-abnegation is truly noble. I'm not going to fool myself- if I wasn't forced into this secular tithing (or is it more appropriately trithing?), I'd be more than happy to sock that money away. But when it comes to the holidays, I'm more likely to defend the status quo.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a strong feeling that in the feelings you've written about, you do not stand alone. That doesn't make you a bad person, or a good person, but rather simply one who understands his own beliefs.

I count myself lucky to be one of the lucky ones, who does not have to choose between doing good for others at the holidays and doing good by ourselves. Clothes will be donated, checks written to charities, extra time spent volunteering, and the occasional dollar put in a bucket or at the grocery checkout line. On the night before Christmas, we begin showering each other with purchased gifts (made so much easier with the internet). Then again, I suppose that means we have made a do both. That makes me neither good, nor bad, just someone who by your message has caused me to think about my own beliefs. I think they will stay the same as well.

7:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you seen ? It's a powerful documantary that shows among many things that the thought that "a region that can't support it's current population" is oftens a misconception. There are other factors at play. Check it out and post a critique. I'd be curious to hear if it moves you.

10:56 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


I know I don't stand alone in those feelings... but I doubt there are many willing to own them.


No. I haven't seen that. I checked out the link. looks like an intriguing look at a little-known region.

7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I got new toys as a kid but remember the joys of my parents generation. This was a generation that grew up during the depression. They all exchanged found, regifted, and homemade presents. It was all curious to me as kid, but when I take my naps under an another afgran that my great aunt made - I get it. JM

9:43 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


You wrote...

"This was a generation that grew up during the depression. They all exchanged found, regifted, and homemade presents."

I think within the next couple of years, we're all going to understand this pretty well.

8:37 PM  

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