Thought for the Day: American Generosity

“We are, by nature, a generous people.  Just about every American I know who has traveled abroad and taken the time to have genuine conversations with citizens of other countries has encountered the question, as I have, “Why isn’t your country as nice as you are?”  I wish I knew.  Maybe we’re distracted by our attachment to convenience; maybe we believe the ads that tell us that material things are the key to happiness; or maybe we’re too frightened to question those who routinely define our national interest for us in terms of corporate profits.  Then, too, millions of Americans are so strapped by the task of keeping their kids fed and a roof over their heads that it’s impossible for them to consider much of anything beyond that.  But ultimately the answer must be that as a nation, we just haven’t yet demanded generosity of ourselves.

But we could, and we know it.  Our country possesses the resources to bring solar technology, energy independence, and sustainable living to our planet.  Even in the simple realm of humanitarian assistance, the United Nations estimates that $13 billion above currents levels of aid would provide everyone in the world (including the hungry within our own borders) with basic health and nutrition.  Collectively, Americans and Europeans spend $17 billion a year on pet food [my emphasis].

lovebirdsWe could do much more than just feed the family of mankind as well as our cats and dogs; we could assist that family in acquiring the basic skills and tools it needs to feed itself, while maintaining the natural resources on which all life depends.  Real generosity involves not only making a gift but also giving up something, and on both scores we’re well situated to be the most generous nation on earth [my emphasis].

We like to say we already are, and it’s true that American people give of their own minute proportion of the country’s wealth to help victims of disasters far and wide.  Our children collect pennies to buy rain forests one cubic inch at a time, but this is a widow’s mite, not a national tithe.  Our government’s spending on foreign aid has plummeted over the last twenty years to levels that are–to put it bluntly–the stingiest among all developed nations’. In the year 2000, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States allocated just .1 percent of its gross national product to foreign aid–or about one dime for every hundred dollars in its treasury–whereas Canada, Japan, Austria, Australia, and Germany each contributed two to three times that much.  Other countries gave even more, some as much as ten times the amount we do; they view this as a contribution to the world’s stability and their own peace [my emphasis].  But our country takes a different approach to generosity: Our tradition is to forgive debt in exchange for a strategic military base, an indentured economy, or mineral rights.  We offer the hungry our magic seeds, genetically altered so the recipients must also buy our pesticides, while their sturdy native seed banks die out.  At Fat Brother’s house the domestic help might now and then slip out the back door with a plate of food for a neighbor, but for the record the household gives virtually nothing away.  Even now, in what may be the most critical moment of our history, I fear that we seem to be telling the world we are not merciful so much as we are mighty.

In our darkest hours we may find comfort in the age-old slogan from the resistance movement, declaring that we shall not be moved.  But we need to finish that sentence.  Moved from where? Are we anchoring to the best of what we’ve believed in, throughout our history, or merely to an angry new mode of self-preservation?  The American moral high ground can’t possibly be an isolated mountaintop from which we refuse to learn anything at all to protect ourselves from monstrous losses.  it is critical to distinguish here between innocence and naïveté: The innocent do not deserve to be violated, but only the naive refuse to think about the origins of violence.  A nation that seems to believe so powerfully in retaliation cannot flatly refuse to look at the world in terms of cause and effect.  The rage and fury of this world have not notably lashed out at Canada (the nation that takes best care of its citizens), or Finland (the most literate), or Brazil or Costa Rica (among the most biodiverse).  Neither have they tried to strike down our redwood forests or our fields of waving grain.  Striving to cut us most deeply, they felled the towers that seemed to claim we buy and sell the world.

We don’t own the world, as it turns out.  Flight attendants and bankers, mothers and sons were ripped from us as proof, and thousands of families must now spend whole lifetimes reassembling themselves after shattering loss.  The rest of us have lowered our flags in grief on their behalf.  I believe we could do the same for the 35,600 of the world’s children who also died on September 11 from conditions of starvation, and extend our hearts to the fathers and mothers who lost them.

This seems a reasonable time to search our souls for some corner where humility resides.  Our nation behaves in some ways that bring joy to the world, and in others that make people angry.  Not all of those people are heartless enough to kill us for it, or fanatical enough to die in the effort, but some inevitably will be–more and more, as desperation spreads.  Wars of endless retaliation kill not only people but also the systems that grow food, deliver clean water, and heal the sick; they destroy beauty, they extinguish species, they increase desperation [my emphasis].

I wish our national anthem were not the one about the bombs bursting in air, but the one about purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.  It’s easier to sing and closer to the heart of what we really have to sing about.  A land as broad and green as ours demands of us thanksgiving and a certain breadth of spirit.  It invites us to invest our hearts most deeply in invulnerable majesties that can never be brought down in a stroke of anger.  If we can agree on anything in difficult times, it must be that we have the resources to behave more generously than we do, and that we are brave enough to rise from the ashes of loss as better citizens of the world than we have ever been.


We’ve inherited the grace of the Grand Canyon, the mystery of the Everglades, the fertility of an Iowa plain–we could crown this good with brotherhood.  What a vast inheritance for our children that would be, if we were to become a nation humble before our rich birthright, whose graciousness makes us beloved” (p. 27-30).

From: Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver – published 2002 – and perhaps even  more true today.



If we can feed and take care of our pets well, and we do, we could also be making sure the refugees and hungry of the world get sustenance,  shelter, and education.  We must all do what we can.

Aloha, Renée

Banner: made by S. Klein

Lovebird  photo: Jenis
















About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

3 responses to “Thought for the Day: American Generosity”

  1. Rosita says :

    I’m a dog lover myself, but I have to agree . And I’m planning to found a kennel somewhere in my Brasil , and it has already a name 😉 just FYI, I’m saving money for dat old dream. But it’s NOT gonna be a Backyard Kennel nor Puppy Mills! It’s gonna be a conscious, ethical one, home-based kennel which only sells puppies after neutered/spayed and properly vaccinated and socialized, possible owners will have to respond a questionnaire to see whether are they able to own a puppy. And I’m also gonna spay/neuter retired dogs and bitches, and keep them as pets, donating retired dogs and bitches only if someone shows great interest and after possible owner replyes questionnaire. Plan will get into practice sometime between 2024-30. Anyway, let’s stop random blabbering: it is definitely NOT gonna be Puppy Mills nor Backyard Kennel, and 50% of money will be sent to a no-kill animal shelter, so, it’s a small charity act all kennel owners should – and can – do, even if it’s on smaller pounds of money. My family do donate money to Doctors Without Boards, and I pretend to continue this once I start getting my own money, thro work 😄 as I’m gonna be a doc myself, I strongly support and admire Doctors Without Boards work, although I don’t have emotional nor physical structure for working with them, as I’m already emotionally destroyed by witnessing people slowly dying of illnesses in my front, so, I feel like I wouldn’t involve directly on it, just donate them money, some blankets and medicines, which is wha’ they do need most, IMHO ❤️ and, although I was raised on a Christian family, I do identify myself more with Buddhism, hence my “do it on an uncorrupted, righteous way” philosophy 😇 my family also do donate some amount of money to WWF, and I’ll continue it once I start getting my own money, same as Doctors Without Boards stuff. I hope such small things I do make our world better. We all should do such little good things for making our little big planet a better place. ☺️
    May God bless y’all,

    • reneeriley says :

      Hi Rosita: You have great, loving plans. The world needs people like you everywhere. Doctors without Borders and World Wildlife Fund are two really good places to give money. A great example of WWF work is in the book by John Read “The Last Wild Island: Saving Tetepare.” I think you would like the book (although I don’t remember dogs being involved). WWF helped the community resist the logging companies and the replacement palm oil plantations that have taken over much – most – of the South Pacific islands. . There is work to be done by everyone. Aloha, Renée

      • Rosita says :

        ty, jewel! ❤ and world needs more ppl like u and Barry, too! I'll install book u recommended meh in my iPad ^^ I'm passionate about environment as well as traveling, so I'm thinking on volunteering somewhere some time after I enter university, as I'll have more free time and legal age for doing such stuff 🙂
        Hope y'all are fine,

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