Thursday, April 30, 2009

Life of Service

We are all part of a greater system, and the whole will only be healthy if its constituent parts are. Thus we should help those who are in need, especially in ways that provide a useful understanding of the world and our role in it—namely that we are dependent on and part of the Earth, and that only through sustaining this beautiful, fragile system will we lead meaningful and satisfying lives.

With the current recession, economic insecurity is spiking worldwide. But even before this crisis, there were almost 2.6 billion people living on less than US$2 a day. Those of us with the means to help others less fortunate than we are have an obligation to do so. I won’t justify that statement here; anyone who has seen others suffering and doesn’t feel compassion to help will surely not be transformed by anything I might say in this essay.

Nor will I go into the ample research showing that helping others often makes one happier and more fulfilled. But what I do hope to make clear is that some ways of helping are better than others. There’s an old Chinese proverb, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Of course, that was before oceans were acidifying and fish threatened to become a rare luxury, but the broader point still rings true. Providing temporary aid that doesn’t get to the root of the problem is futile. (For a detailed discussion of this, see the book Sweet Charity.)

Considering our rising population and declining ecological systems, it’s imperative that we teach people to live simply. Not surprisingly, living simply will actually reduce economic worries, while increasing free time and reducing impact. Too often wealth is conflated with wellbeing, when in fact the two are only tangentially related. By recognizing that a good life depends not on wealth but on health, basic security, community, and purpose, lives can be very good while being simple and low-impact.

Charity, in theory, could be a perfect vehicle to teach this, but is rarely utilized in that way. Instead, most charitable operations provide a fish each day and do nothing to counteract the billions spent by advertisers to teach that unless you have not just swordfish on your plate but a yacht to catch them from, you’re not going to be happy. Hence, people have trouble making ends meet, even when earning good salaries, because they’ve reached their credit-card limits and taken additional mortgages on their oversized homes—all for consumer goods like flatscreen televisions that increase their electricity costs and encourage them to sit still and watch more ads.

Imagine if charities were designed to reeducate “failed” consumers in simple living, ecological stewardship, and informed citizenship, so that when a new family walks into the food pantry they receive food aid, but only after they agree to enroll in a course on financial planning, living simply, media analysis (to help defend against advertising messages), our ecological footprints, and so on. Or when a diabetic walks into a free clinic, he is treated—but only after agreeing to take a course on healthy cooking and to work several hours in the clinic’s community garden. Yes, give fish to those in need, but teach them how to fish while they eat. Slowly but surely, by replacing the influences of the consumer society, people will learn how to live healthier and more sustainable lives, and most likely become happier in
the process.

Of course, one problem here is that few such programs exist. For the social entrepreneurs reading this, consider starting one. For others, don’t let the Perfect be the enemy of the Good. Search out a local urban garden or food security agency that at least understands these points and then push them to do more to address root causes.

Ultimately, the best way to serve may be the least satisfying: lobbying to make major changes in the systems that prop up the consumer culture. But one can be an advocate for change while helping individuals directly. And every person awakened from the consumer dream can also start helping others, both directly and through advocating systemic changes.

This essay is reprinted from World Watch Magazine, May/June 2009

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