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On giving

I am very fortunate. John and I are both employed and the paycheques that arrive in our bank accounts each month add up to more than we need to cover the bills. After many years as cash-strapped students, it’s a wonderful place to be and I am painfully aware how few young people can say the same in this tough economy. While it took hard work and sacrifices, we are aware that we also had the wind at our backs. We’ve had advantages, whether we knew it or not, and we’ve had luck.

Now I want to give to those who haven’t had as much. John and I agree that charitable giving is important to us. We want to donate to organizations that are reputable and provide concrete help to those that need it. Food. Clean water. A warm bed. A vaccination. Whatever simple need that will make life more livable, both locally and globally.

We agree on all this, so why is it that we only donated 0.2% of our income last year to charity? The facts should be simple: we have more than we need to meet our basic human needs right now and there are people around us who don’t. As decent human beings, we know we ought to help.

But then other voices kick in. Ones that say “what about saving for the kids you plan to have?” and “you really should put money aside to go visit your mom” and “there is no such thing as extra money when the bank owns most of your home.”

These voices are strong and they are smart. In fact, these voices have gotten us to the point where we can even contemplate giving in the first place. They often keep us home when we are tempted by dinner out or a weekend away, so they certainly make themselves heard when we are contemplating giving our money to something with far less instant gratification. The quiet satisfaction you get from donating to charity requires a more sophisticated palate to be appreciated. It becomes all too easy to put off. As we do.

I come from a family – in fact, a culture –  where charitable giving never entered the conversation at the kitchen table. In Finland and other socialist-leaning economies, the social contract doesn’t leave generosity up to individual choice – a highly progressive tax code ensures that those who have more give to those who have less whether they like it or not. In exchange, the government does a relatively good job of ensuring that no one in the country goes hungry or cold and the highly taxed can sleep soundly at night.

Now, in a country with a smaller social safety net, I simply don’t know how to negotiate the personal choice to give.

And it’s no surprise – there is very little guidance on how to negotiate this choice. In the secular, middle-class world, charity is such a personal and quiet choice it becomes very nearly invisible. In the finance books and blogs I’ve read, charitable giving is conspicuously absent from spending breakdowns, except maybe as a tax break for the wealthy or a teaching tool for young kids. For everyone else, the message is always focused on all the other places our money should go. Are young families simply not in a position to be giving money away? Or are they just not talking about it?

We should talk about it, because charitable giving is not easy, especially in isolation. If I’m completely honest, I’ll admit it’s hard to give up luxuries we enjoy, like dinners out, only to then give away the money to someone else. There, I said it. I might as well dye my hair rainbow and move to the Capitol. (Oh who am I kidding – we’re all already there.) Giving will always be a deeply personal choice and one that you have to prioritize for yourself, but I know more open discussion would help quiet those voices in my head and make the sacrifices easier.

John and I will always be somewhat cautious because it’s our nature, but we know we can do better than 0.2%. Yes we need to save for a rainy day, but there are people standing in the middle of storms right now. What we need is to find our own comfortable balance between the moral imperative to give and the practical imperative to save – while still preserving the life imperative to have fun once in a while.

What are your thoughts on charitable giving? And if you donate/plan to donate in the future, how do you balance all these competing priorities for your money? And I am specifically speaking about donating money – I think I’d like to talk about donating time in another post.

Uncertainty

My last few weeks have been filled with uncertainty. Icky, unsettling uncertainty.

There’s a chance I may lose my job. About 10% of us will. At the moment I am not terribly worried about it – our managers seem to think our group will be spared – with the exception of occasional pangs of panic when the implications of that what-if hit me. We have some savings, I have some marketable skills, but we also have a Vancouver-sized mortgage and an unfriendly job-market. I should find out in the next few weeks whether I might be affected.

My mom was pretty sick recently. She came down with a severe case of pneumonia and spent five days in the hospital being pumped full of antibiotics. Across the world from me. She came through all right and is recuperating at home now – by herself. It’s all a rather harsh reminder that I can’t be there to help her when she needs it. And that’s not going to change in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, I keep waiting for my eyes to heal, each day assessing my progress and wondering where I’ll end up. There’s a very good chance I’ll get 20/20 or better vision (I’m pretty close now) and the doctor says I’m healing well but I can’t help but worry just a little now and again. It’s my vision after all.

I’m not here for a pity party because this is all rather normal. Unfortunately none of us can be all that certain about our jobs, our health, or our loved ones’ health.

But we like to pretend we can.

In fact I think we have to to get out of bed in the morning. The world is too scary otherwise. We create a bubble around our lives that we pretend we can control; if I just buy my insurance and look both ways before crossing the street and dedicate one hour each day to thinking through all the terrible things that could happen in order to prevent them from happening I’ll be fine. The world won’t get me.

Those moments when you glimpse your true vulnerability – when it sneaks past the intricate psychological barriers your brain has been building up since you first realized your parents don’t control the entire universe – are bone-chillingly terrifying. And then you rush to close your eyes before that image is burned into your mind’s eye forever and you stop being able to laugh till you pee a little at stuff like this.

My list is short

I have hit a bit of a writing lull over here at my little blog. It started off innocently enough – I was feeling down so I gave myself a break and focused on taking care of myself: reading for pleasure, going to the gym, eating yummy food, and lets be honest, vegging in front of the TV watching the backlog of Daily Shows and Colbert Reports we had built up on the DVR. But even once I started feeling more like myself, I was still trapped by all these precedents I had set like ‘I won’t write when I have a headache’ (which wipes out about 80% of my days in the last month). And ‘I shouldn’t write on sunny days because we will only have a handful more before five solid months of grey rain kick in.’ And ‘I shouldn’t write when I get home from work because then I neglect dinner and we end up eating pasta again.‘*

And once those precedents are set it becomes an uphill battle to break them.

One of our rare sunny fall days

So I’m easing back into my writing routine with someone else’s words, specifically this quote I just read as part of an interview on the Happiness Project from author Deborah Needleman (I’m also really behind on reading blogs obviously). It pinned down this vague concern I’ve had floating around in my head for the last little while as I’ve been reading about people’s life lists:

On a philosophical level I have always sought happiness above all else. I have not sought money or success or a career or a certain type of life, I have sought only happiness. I did not grow up having ambition or desire to do or be anything, nor did I have any particular skills or talents or passions. I had a hard time projecting myself into the future or imagining or desiring anything for the future. I just simply sought happiness… Now I am ambitious, but even still, I’m ambitious to be the best I can, make good things, not to reach any level or tick off any box.

This might sound strange to you, because it does to me, but I don’t recall having any specific long-term dreams or goals for my life when I was younger. I never dreamed about a wedding let alone a marriage. I didn’t picture my future children or my career. I never made a ‘things I want to accomplish by <insert milestone age here>’ list. I never had a list of places I want to visit, or activities I want to try. I still don’t.

This sounds like the makings of an aimless kind of life, or maybe a life an autopilot. When I realized how few specific dreams I could actually recall having I wondered what in the world was wrong with me. And that remains to be answered, but the fact is, if you plotted my life against someone who had a really ambitious life-list full of goals, I don’t actually think you’d be able to tell which was which (unless their goal was winning the Nobel Prize or American Idol or something).

I guess that makes me lucky** – thus far I have gotten a life I’m pretty content with along with good scenery on the way without ever drawing a map; I’ve just explored the paths in front of me to find the one that I like best and sometimes forged my own when the existing ones didn’t work. It sounds haphazard but it never felt like it. Reading this quote reminded me that I do always have a guiding force with me – the search for happiness and satisfaction in my life.

A few times now I have thought about trying to make some sort of life-list, even mentally, but each time I do I seem to hit on the realization that I still have no idea what to put on it. And maybe that’s ok. Some people have specific ideas of what they want to accomplish in their lives and that’s fantastic because recognizing those goals will bring them closer to reality, but for me – I might just have to tell you when I get there.

Do you have a life list (either a literal list or a mental one)? If so, was this something that came naturally to you or something that you pushed yourself to consider?

 *I’m typing this as the wonderful smell of pesto wafts from the kitchen where John is cooking it up with pasta and some shrimp. Tomorrow we’ll eat something not entirely composed of fat and white flour, but today I write.

**I should specify that I did always bust my ass along the way – the luck comes in it all working out.