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].
We 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.
Banner: made by S. Klein
Lovebird photo: Jenis