Measure for Measure

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William Shakespeare knew his Bible. His dark comedy Measure for Measure uses the words of Luke to fashion a tale of sin, hypocrisy, and justice. In the play, the emphasis is more upon getting one’s just deserts in a negative sense. The character who condemns others for their sins also stands condemned for the same sin. Yet at the very end, Shakespeare affords its hypocritical character something truly God-like: mercy.

The words of Luke 6:38 are really about extravagant giving. So often we as humans are worried about having enough – money, time, attention etc. We hoard what we have or give only from our excess. It is really hard – and takes a lot of faith – to give until it hurts.

I like to think of myself as a generous person. I give to charity, try to be kind to strangers, and consider myself a good friend, especially in times of need. Yet I know that I often begrudge the time I spend on others. I may smile and offer to help, but later I can be found complaining about someone’s neediness or constant requests for help. And my donations to causes don’t really cause appreciable distress for materially.

I want to learn to give with extravagant love, not counting the cost. I want to lose myself in service to others. I want to embrace the unloved and the seemingly unlovable. But I’m often afraid or tired or discouraged – even, at times, annoyed. It’s a sad truth of the human condition that we are first and foremost concerned with our own survival. Or to paraphrase a famous saying, “To hoard is human, to give divine.”

Many years ago, I learned of a local family who had lost all of their worldly possessions in a fire. The family had young children, so I asked my daughter if she would be willing to donate one of her toys to a little girl who had lost all of hers. My daughter selected a beloved Little Mermaid “Barbie” to give. Almost from the moment the doll left our house, my daughter had “giver’s remorse.” Although she had several Barbies, Ariel was her favorite. My young child instinctively knew how to give until it hurt.

As we approach the days when we commemorate the life-giving sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, it’s good to reflect upon what self-abnegating love we can share with others in our lives, knowing that “the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

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Hope

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With everything going on in the world these days, it’s easy to feel discouraged. Greed, intolerance, partisanship, abuse, and violence have all cast a pall on my holiday spirits. I have several friends who have stopped going on Facebook to avoid the constant bad news and negativity. To add to my feelings of despondency, I learned that a little boy from my town lost his battle with cancer last week.

But then at Sunday morning Mass, something happened to me. I was watching parishioners file down the aisles after receiving Holy Communion, and a tiny feeling lit up my heart: hope. All these people, young and old, had given up their cozy beds of a Sunday morning and come together to pray. We were there because we have faith that goodness and love are stronger than evil and hatred.

Faith is the ” realization of things hoped for, evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1) This past Sunday, the first candle was lit on the Advent wreath, its light a reminder of that tiny flame within each of us that can kindle hope.

Hope looks like Sisterhood Soap, a collective of Iraqi refugee women living in the direst of conditions who are taking charge of their destiny by making and selling soap. Hope resembles the unlikely friendship between an 81-year-old white woman and a 22-year-old black man, who met playing the online game Words With Friends. Hope is the dominant spirit at GiGi’s Playhouse, a nonprofit that works toward achievement and acceptance of people with Down’s Syndrome. Hope is Operation Christmas Child, a mission to spread joy and faith throughout the world with boxes full of goodies for impoverished children.

Hope is the sound of the Salvation Army bell ringing out on the cold, busy street. Hope is the light in a young child’s eyes when he sees a brightly wrapped package on Christmas morning with his name on it. Hope is abundant as families gather at the holidays, break bread, and share their love for one another.  Hope is the babe in the manger, the unlikely harbinger of peace on earth.

With a spirit of hope, let’s move through the Christmas season, spreading joy and kindness, and doing good for friends and strangers alike.

 

The Leftovers

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Thanksgiving-Table-Setting-Featured-ImageI never realized that some people dislike Thanksgiving until I read Rex Huppke’s column in the Chicago Tribune yesterday. To me, Thanksgiving is the “un-holiday” with its emphasis on family togetherness, gratitude, and good food. Huppke’s objections to Thanksgiving mostly stem from his dislike of the traditional foods prepared on this day.

That got me to thinking. Everyone seems to have a favorite dish on Thanksgiving. You might be a meat-loving purist who goes for triple helpings of bird and then falls into an L-tryptophan-induced coma on Grandma’s couch. You might love stuffing, but only the kind your mom used to make (Begone, sausage and nuts!). You might be like me, the inveterate sweet tooth, pigging out on sweet potatoes and cranberry sauce.

The question is, what Thanksgiving foods do you most hope become leftovers? That’s the other entirely wonderful thing about Thanksgiving – the leftovers. After a day spent eating, drinking, and watching football (and not arguing politics, let’s hope), it’s great fun to peruse the leftover pickings the next day: the turkey just begging to be made into a sandwich with some of that cranberry sauce on top; the multiple pies brought by various guests; the soft rolls that sat sort of neglected while other foods took yesterday’s stage.

At my mother-in-law’s, where my family spends each Thanksgiving, there are some delicious Middle Eastern additions to the traditional Thanksgiving banquet. Alongside the turkey, there are usually a curry dish of some kind, delicious dumplings called kibbeh hamath, and aromatic saffron yellow rice. If we play our cards right, we will get to take some of this bounty home with us for post-Thanksgiving noshing. 

Yes, leftovers are one of the more delightful aspects of Thanksgiving. But what of those who have no Thanksgiving feast, never mind leftovers? On this bounteous holiday, it bears remembering that people all over the world are hungry. This is not a reason to despair but a reminder to share. We can make feeding the hungry a regular priority in our charitable giving. We can gather in groups and participate in food-packing events for Feed My Starving Children. We can even spend some of our holiday time at a soup kitchen. We can include a lonely neighbor or relative in our Thanksgiving celebration.

This Thanksgiving, while we are being thankful for leftovers, let’s not forget those left out.

The Limits of Charity

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At the holidays, there is usually an upsurge in charitable giving. Not only are individuals making end-of-year donations for tax purposes, but people are generally filled with good will at this time of year. Indeed, concerted efforts at philanthropy can be effective at achieving very specific goals. Take, for instance, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised millions for ALS research. Researchers have said that the funds raised during that drive substantially contributed to breakthroughs in their research. (Washington Post, July 27, 2016)

Yet when it comes to helping fellow Americans meet basic needs for food, shelter, and healthcare, there are limits to how much private citizens can provide. As the incoming Republican-dominated Congress led by Paul Ryan looks poised to reduce or dismantle many of the New Deal programs that led Americans out of the Great Depression, it is worth considering what role the government should have in seeing that no Americans are in desperate want.

Two huge events in our recent history revealed just how limited private philanthropy is in a major crisis. The first was the Great Depression of the 1930s. As Roosevelt Institute fellow Mike Konczal describes in “The Conservative Myth of a Social Safety Net Built on Charity,” private social service agencies at the time were overrun with requests for aid that they simply could not supply (The Atlantic, March 24, 2014).  As a result, “communities turned to the New Deal to provide the baseline of security that their voluntary societies were unable to offer during a deep recession.”

Like the Great Depression of the ’30s, the recent Great Recession showed the inability of the private sector to alleviate suffering as unemployment rose and wage stagnation threw people on the edge into poverty. As Konczal mentions, during this time the amount of private giving on the part of both individuals and corporations fell. This meant even fewer material resources for a growing number of families in crisis. Indeed, it is only due to government programs such as food assistance and unemployment insurance that the suffering was as limited as it was. Furthermore, government bailout of the banking industry and Federal Reserve policy helped assure that the Great Recession did not become another Great Depression.

Conservative insistence upon reducing government aid rests on the belief that people are inherently lazy and will cease to look for work if given too many handouts. But private philanthropy can actually be more demoralizing than public assistance. Private organizations and individuals can decide that certain segments of the population or certain behaviors don’t meet their moral standards, and they can deny assistance on that basis. In fact, there has been a push in recent years to force public aid recipients to undergo drug testing and to limit the types of food they can buy with food stamps. We shouldn’t be forcing human beings to prove they are worthy of assistance.

Is there a role for charity in our society? Of course. Through our own philanthropy, we can provide a wide range of benefits: medical research funding, disaster relief, college scholarships, wish experiences for young cancer patients, arts patronage. The list goes on and on. But history has shown us the limits of charity to assure that basic human needs are met for all of our citizens.

The belief that all Americans should have a basic standard of living despite what hardships may befall them is an ideal that I believe our society should strive for. And the only truly effective way to reach all Americans is a system of federal guarantees and insurance paid for by all of us for the betterment of our entire society.

 

 

Ice on Your Head

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Hinsdale police take the Ice Bucket Challenge (source: Darien Patch)

The Ice Bucket Challenge has taken social media by storm. At first I was puzzled. What were all these reasonable people doing having a bucket of ice poured over their heads? I wondered. Then I realized that there were charitable donations attached to the activity, most notably for research to cure the devastating disease ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The whole thing is not unlike the dunking booth at school carnivals, wherein students can, for a fee, sink their favorite (or most hated) teacher into a vat of cold water.

Inevitably, though, the haters started posting. Quit being stupid, these posts admonished, and stop pouring ice over your heads. Just make the donation already! I have to admit that in the past I have been a naysayer about charitable events, whether  they be marathons or dinner dances. My favorite charitable event was one called the No Show Dinner. You were asked to send in a contribution without the expectation of getting dressed up and attending a pricey gala. This appealed not only to my dislike of wearing high heels and makeup, but also to my sense that the money spent on these events would be better spent by giving it directly to the charity in question.

I have come to realize, though, that the events themselves are important. First of all, they provide a catalyst for action. Most people don’t sit around pondering which charities or causes they should support. But if you invite them to walk or run a 10 K, hobnob with the glitterati at a gala, or, indeed, pour a bucket of ice over their heads, they tune in to the need and respond accordingly.

Charitable events also provide emotional support for those suffering from a particular disease or syndrome. It gives their loved ones a focus for their feelings of grief and helplessness. Last summer my daughter and her friends helped a good friend organize an event in New York City called Cycle for Survival. This activity helped my daughter’s friend after the death of her mother to cancer.

Participating in a benefit is also a way to cultivate our own sense of compassion for the suffering of others. Last summer I walked 39.3 miles in Chicago for the Avon Breast Cancer 2-Day. Although I have not been closely affected by the disease, as a woman I wanted to support others going through cancer treatment. Raising the money helped fund practical cancer-fighting activities, but the walk itself gave me a sense of unity with men and women in treatment for or, more happily, in remission from, this dreaded disease.

So if I am called upon to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge, I just may be posting my own video on Facebook and asking friends to donate to ALS research. I’ll be sure to choose a 90 degree day!