Every year for the past three or four years, I have converted my basement shop, where I normally keep my tools, retired golf clubs, and guitar gear, into a wrapping room, where my wife and I store, wrap, and hide gifts for each other and our children. It’s replete with a large workbench covered in various papers, ribbons, and bows, Christmas lights strung from the exposed floor joists, and my old college bookshelf stereo, with the station set to Christmas music and the knob ripped off. I’ve even posted a sign on the padlocked door, declaring it a “North Pole Extension Office,” which also warns children to abandon all hope of making Santa’s nice list if they choose to breach the threshold.
My wife and I, either together or alone, spend several pre-Christmas evenings flitting about the room, wrapping presents, sipping a cocktail or three, and soaking up the holiday spirit like a Sham-Wow to spilt egg nog. It’s border-line psychotic behavior of the rarely acceptable type. Over the last few years, we’ve mostly separated ourselves from the madness of retail shopping, relying almost solely on the convenience of the internet. I don’t have time for Black Friday, fistfights over Vietnamese-made televisions, the pretention of Keystone Mall salespeople who assume I’m a rich Carmelite, or the many highway miles I’d otherwise have to log making shopping trips to Indianapolis or Terre Haute from my firmly established Christmas compound in Greencastle. All I need is wi-fi, a credit card, and The Velvet Fog singing “The Christmas Song” in the background.
But, even in the midst of my relatively hermetic world of Christmas preparation, I’ve found there is one thing I cannot escape: the fact that I’m so much better off than many of the people who share my community. Am I rich? No. My wife makes a decent living in the financial services industry, helping public school teachers prepare for retirement. If you know anything about the salaries of Indiana’s public school teachers, then you know we aren’t making bank off of them. I work for an under-funded state university. And, while I make a decent salary, it certainly isn’t going to vault me into the upper tax brackets. But we’re comfortable. We don’t go without often, if at all. I have four young children who can eat the equivalent weight of a Hereford steer in a week, and they do. There will be no shortage of Christmas gifts from Santa awaiting my kids on the dawn of the 25th. My house is warm, my lawn is kept up, and I have a new Honda Pilot parked in my driveway. But at the end of my driveway, I learned a lesson that either escapes many of us this time of year, or that we consciously choose to ignore. There are people out there who have little to nothing at all. Not just at Christmas, but all year long.
“…even in the midst of my relatively hermetic world of Christmas preparation, I’ve found there is one thing I cannot escape: the fact that I’m so much better off than many of the people who share my community.”
My driveway extends from the back of my house to its terminus at Franklin Street in Greencastle. My house is exactly midway between the local Kroger and the local homeless shelter. Every day I can look out my window as people, often entire families, housed in the shelter make the trek to Kroger and back for whatever supplies they can afford. I’m sure they may prefer getting cheaper goods from Wal-Mart, but it’s clear out on the east edge of town and I’m assuming these people don’t have the means for a car, or bus fare, since they’re living in a shelter. I’m stuck halfway on their journey just as they are stuck halfway between homelessness and a life put back together. Could they use a little help? You betcha. Do I help them? No.
I bristle at the sight of Salvation Army bell-ringers, I hang up on phone solicitations for the needy like they’re trying to sell me something I don’t want, and I crank up the stereo in my car and sing along to feign ignorance of the man at 25th and Wabash in Terre Haute holding a sign that says “Homeless Veteran. Need Help.” And, like many of us, I invent reasons to sidestep these opportunities to give. Is he really a homeless vet, or just a junkie needing a fix? Is this guy a legitimate Salvation Army Santa? I don’t know where that money is going. I’ll save my money for a cause I’m more interested in. But the bottom line is that if we as a community were giving enough already, we might not be put in the awkward situation of being asked to give so often. And what takes more courage, what risks embarrassment and stereotyping more: having to stand on a street corner begging to survive, or grabbing that small pile of change from your car’s console and just handing it over? I’m not in the business of shaming, but I’m admittedly ashamed of myself for practicing this electively blind behavior for years.
You don’t have to give constantly, or give the homestead away to make a difference. It may sound cliché, but every little bit does help. Money sent to charities can go to a myriad of good causes, from feeding the hungry to providing hospice for dying people. Buying an extra can of whatever at the store and dropping it in a food collection bin could be the difference in a day of hunger and a day of sustenance for someone in need. The list of opportunities goes on and on.
Many of us only give when we know the proceeds will go to a cause we’re attached to, or that fits our interests and personalities. The last time I consciously gave anything other than slipping a $20 into my church collection plate was $13.00 I sent in to help build the 9/11 Memorial in a Pennsylvania field, commemorating the brave souls who fought back against their hijackers. I was moved by an ESPN article by Rick Reilly, which implored me give so these people could be honored. The article said that if enough $13.00 pledges were collected the monument could be built. So I sent in my $13.00, but no more. Was it a good cause that I was interested in? Sure. Did these brave Americans deserve to be memorialized? Absolutely. However, I didn’t realize at the time that I was giving money for people who weren’t alive anymore, as opposed to living people in real need. I’m glad I gave that $13.00, and my name is minutely etched into the wall at the Memorial’s entrance, commemorating my meager gift, but that’s little consolation to the living.
As I sit in my renovated kitchen, sipping espresso from an expensive machine that I first ran across while staying in an extremely luxurious Montreal hotel over-looking the St. Lawrence River, I watch the day long procession of the homeless going to Kroger and back . Could I go out and meet them, offer them some canned goods, slip them a $20 and tell them they need it more than I do? You know I could. But I don’t.
I continue to make excuses. We’ve all heard them and probably have uttered a few ourselves. All they need to do is work harder to get where they need to be. If they just gave up drugs and alcohol they wouldn’t be in this position. The problem is that these are just stories the well-off tell themselves in order to avoid reaching into their pockets. Few, if any of us, know what it means to be homeless, or mentally ill to a debilitating degree, or addicted to hard drugs. We can’t assume that a person is in need because of their own poor decisions, or that they have the means or opportunities to pull themselves up from the depths they’ve fallen to. And we can’t deny that most of us have far more than we actually need to be comfortable.
A lot of us give already, and that’s to be commended. A lot of us are already attached to clubs or organizations that work in charitable ways. Also great. But also not enough. Not enough of us contribute in meaningful ways. And giving once is not an excuse for not giving again. I’m not asking you to send 10% of your salary, like churches do, and I’m not asking that you throw change into every bell-ringer’s pot you walk by. I’m only asking you to ask yourself, I am I giving enough? Or more importantly, am I giving at all? I do give, but I certainly could do more.
If you’re not into random giving and you want to put your money someplace that fits your outlook, do it. Are you a veteran who wants to help other veterans? Do it. Are you a relative of someone suffering a debilitating disease that has a charity attached to it? Do it. Give. Or do just give randomly, like to the bell-ringer, or the homeless guy at the end of the off ramp. Worry less about how your money will be used and focus on the fact that it will be used at all. Just last week my son came home from middle school with a little box to collect money for Leukemia research. Do I know anyone in my inner circle who suffers from Leukemia? Nope. But it doesn’t matter. I raided my change jar, which I never turn into the bank and has become simply a depository for golf ball markers, and I filled that little box until the cardboard seams were at the verge of bursting.
You could be the brave one to take up a collection at your office or family holiday gathering. My wife’s grandmother solicits people before Christmas and then picks a needy family in Brazil, Indiana every year to give the money to. In other words, people who would otherwise not have a Christmas.
Still think you don’t have enough money to share? Give your time. It’s as good as money. Volunteer at a shelter, sign up to help distribute collected can goods, become a bell-ringer yourself. Last summer my wife and my 10 year old son spent an entire day volunteering at Gleaner’s Food Bank in Indianapolis. When they opened the door for those in need that afternoon, the line stretched all the way through the parking lot and out onto the street. My son is one of the more materially-focused people I know, but that day at Gleaner’s opened his eyes in a way that many of us refuse to see. The needy are all around us.
The needy transcend all the ways in which we divide ourselves from one another. There are needy Democrats and needy Republicans, needy straight people and needy gay people, needy Whites and needy Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. There are needy Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Atheists. There are needy young people and needy old people. And again, remember that it takes more courage for a person to admit he or she needs help than it does for you to provide that help. Yes, it may require that you step out of your established comfort zone, or that you have to talk to someone from a lower station in life than your own, but the best part about giving is that it rewards both the giver and the recipient. It just feels good. And if you give and you find it doesn’t feel good, or you feel conflicted about donating your time or your money to someone in need because it’s your time, or your money, then you need to add a soul to your list of things to ask Santa for.
Again, I’m not asking you to give at every opportunity that arises. That would be unreasonable considering the near-infinite number of opportunities. I’m only asking you to give something and then make sure it’s not the last time you’ll do it.
I give at church, I gave to the Leukemia charity, and I’m looking to give some other way before the holiday season ends. Why? Because Christmas is a time of joy and giving, and it’s also the time of year when we clearly separate the haves from the have-nots, based on the most glaring examples of negative values in American culture, like purchasing power.
As the Velvet Fog sings, “Santa’s on his way / He’s loaded lots of toys and goodies on his sleigh.” So, when my children wake me in the wee hours of Christmas morning and I come down to see the fruits of my North Pole Extension Office spilling out from under the tree like a Santa’s sleigh version of the Exxon Valdez, I want to be able to look myself in the mirror and be able to say that I gave. And that I will continue to give. And not just to my kids.