The gifts of aging

Of the many gifts of aging, certainly the one we’d most like to share with younger folks, is the realization that our time here on the earth is limited but maybe not limiting. One reaches a certain age and recognizes to see that there are not so many of you left anymore. Your high school classmates or their husbands have passed away. Your boss just died; another co-worker is in assisted living. Not only are your peers dying; they are fading away. Their memories are receding and their abilities are, in some respects anyway, weakening. Of course, there are those us who have been blessed enough to continue with our lives, our loves, our passions, our challenges for some more years. But this sense of decades ahead, not unlimited time, is sobering and focusing. It is in many ways a blessing.
I am late in life runner. I started running at age 68 last year and ran a 5K in October on a tropical day with 100% humidity, leaving me soaked to the skin and victorious. Huh? After some weak efforts at running during the winter on the treadmill, I thought I’d try a beach run this first week of July, at nearly high tide, early in the morning. I did this because a younger friend reminded me about the romance of running. She said, “It’s wonderful, isn’t it. It is only thing that keeps me sane.” I thought, “Well, my own mental health could use some attention, maybe I should try a run tomorrow.”

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So, I headed out barefoot, my iPod on shuffle, onto to Narragansett Beach, running north at about 11 mph. The beach sand was nicely packed in some spots and littered with shells and rocks and in other places. And, most difficult of all, seaweed washed up into the shore, making it slippery with unsure footing. I did my best to run those lengths like a Marine in training. So, with a mild breeze this nearly perfect morning, I ran down the beach to Narrow River and back up again, as if I had been running all my life.

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I ran through Crosby, Stills & Nash, Julia Fordham, Vivaldi, Bobby McFerrin, Paul Simon, and Joni Mitchell—none of it fitting running music but perfect as an accompaniment to my little world. At the end of this, at the top of the beach, at the curve of the sea wall, I stopped to take a breath and found myself dissolving into tears. Simply, this was recognition that the grace of this run through warmed ocean water, with each step a mark of strength and rhythmic energy, was an unearned blessing. Like the gift of last October’s run after pneumonia and this one after a serious strep infection. How much longer can I rely on these blessings? Am I taking away the good karma that should be flowing to the more deserving? Shouldn’t there be sacrifice and effort before such an offering to me? Do those tears count as penance or supplication or just awareness of the randomness of surprise beauty? If this event stands alone and never happens again, it will, as Jewish ritual would pronounce, be enough. Dayenu.

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I’m predicting a bearish market for sociology stocks

It’s just after mid-year 2018 and I am looking at retirement in about a year. It is a perfect time to consider my investments, my future living expenses, my general state of health, my past earnings, and the viability of social security and other public benefits. When so much is on your plate, you are forced to come up with some crystal ball prognostications for whatever these are worth. After all, every smart advisor warns you to come up with a plan. You are counseled against living longer than your money.

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It is like ordering a nice dinner but remembering that you only have enough money for the appetizer and pretty soon there will be ruckus and you will be charged with enjoying dinner under false premises. So, a plan it is.

It should also be noted here that politically, this moment is also one of great turmoil. I don’t write this as a liberal or as a conservative. I think most informed Americans can agree that we are in middle of some great upheaval, a resorting of values and priorities. For some, this seems like a great recalibration, a return to a social order that should be. To others, it seems like wrenching away of core principles that promised more diversity and equality at the price of a disruption of the existing social order.

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So, as I look to the future and secure my true north, I aim to be thinking clearly about the path ahead. Even though I am trained as a PhD sociologist and have completely drunk the Kool-Aid about sociology being the queen of the social sciences, as Comte argued, I regret to share my forecast of a bearish market for sociology stocks. In any hyper-capitalist moment, sociology can lose value. Not because its analysis is weak or underperforming but instead because economics can explain away any sin of the market. So, with its concerns about inequality and social injustice, about the structuring of opportunity and with its focus on the backstage of complex social systems, sociology is bound to fall in favor during times like these.

A smart investor will weather this storm and hold onto his sociology stocks, taking a short-term hit in the market now in the knowledge that stocks will rise again when the public is in the mood to really understand what is going on in the economy and society.

thI am not predicting here that economics will sustain a major crash in the near future; I am suggesting that the cyclical fluctuations in the market and in the larger social order will provoke more and more of our citizens and investors to recognize that, “it is not just the economy, stupid.”It is the community and the common weal and a larger purpose we all have to build a social order that relies neither on luck nor the largesse of the wealthy. Trickle-down theories have run their course, it seems to me. And after all, we are talking about a trickle here not a river of investment and opportunity.

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Imagining my enemies

At sixty-nine years old, a person has few new experiences—unless she plans for them, deliberatively living a new pro-active, pro-aging lifestyle. I am all for that and if I was thirty years younger, I would plunge right in. But, earlier in the week, in the middle of the night, despite security systems and standard precautions, I was attacked in my bed, without provocation, by streptococcus. I woke up sometime during the attack, my autonomic nervous system raising to the call, pushing me to a 103 degree fever, inflamed throat, night sweats, extreme fatigue, stabbing headache, swollen lymph nodes and body aches from head to toe and across the bow, as well. I imagined my immune response system as tiny figures mounting a battle, as first responders courageously and selflessly, running to battle. My response to this response was the result of seeing too many Pixar movies.

I went to the doctor the next day for a diagnosis and while I waiting for my appointment I fell asleep on the examining table. I woke struggling to understand where I was and regretted that I hadn’t brought along witnesses to testify on my behalf because at this point, I also had strep fog. Strep fog is a symptom I have added to the regular list of symptoms to signify the sense that you are too sick to really speak about how sick you are. And, not as well known, there is also strep existential despair, the profound question that arises from that moment of peak fever when you ask, “How can I feel so sick when this will all be over in a few days?” or “What evolutionary benefit can there be in visiting upon the normally healthy an array of symptoms that pushes them to look into getting their final affairs in order?” Surely, I exaggerate a bit. But, I have had major surgeries, weeks of recovery, unaddressed broken bones and more—and I don’t think I have ever encountered the woes of strep throat. In fact, if the doctor had suggested opioids to treat my pain, I may have agreed to taken them for the first time of my life. If asked, I would have also put strep on the list of criteria of reasons to not resuscitate me.

After a few days with penicillin, I began to feel better although it was a long slog. It took me two days to even think that chicken soup was a good idea.

Several days later I decided, after meditating about my bout with strep and my reaction to it, to face my demons. I was wondering what the bacterium looked like. Could I look it in the eye? Could I just appreciate the power of the structure by looking at it? So like everything, I looked for a Google image. While I was at it, I thought I would also explore those who have perished at the hands of strep, making some connection with greatness and their suffering. Maybe, a poet had left some words of wisdom.

So first, images of streptococcus. Could this be less interesting? Really. This felled me? This is dangerous? Doesn’t this look like a figure from an introductory psychology clas220px-Streptococcis when the professor asks you what you see in the picture? For me, I see a smiling sheep or an elephant showing off his tusks in Paris. But, I certainly don’t see a bacteria that almost killed me.

 

So I looked for another image, a 3-D image. At least this one is purple and looks like a threatening pearl necklace that could strangle you. However, it still looks playful in some way. And in the the Pixarification of our lives which lets us see trees smiling at us, makes us fond of rats and ants and cars, and pushes us to grow appreciative of dirty old toys, this could be a friendly tropical worm just getting organized.

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So if an image of a bacterium wouldn’t do it to help me confront this enemy, I would have to rely on stories of other humans who have also suffered from strep. Maybe, I would learn something from their experiences.

Two stories are important here. In my research, the most important person to die of strep is Mozart who died at 35 years old. In this picture, he does sort of look feverish. He was diagnosed with “heated military fever” and died quickly after falling ill. It appears that the infection led to kidney failure. Some accounts say that he infected many other people before he finally fell really ill. Had penicillin been available, mayimagesbe Mozart would have survived.

 

 

 

 

Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, also died of strep, although he should have been saved by antibiotics. However, he had genes that predisposed him to very serious infection called toxic shock syndrome. I avoided that outcome but the world lost a wonderful man with Henson passed away.

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A small percentage of people that get strep will get very seriously ill. So, my encounter was perfectly average misery. That is not much comfort, of course. But, the wonder of being so easily saved from a serious illness and possibly death, is the real news here. So, I can look at the bacterium with deep respect and worship the inventor of penicillin and other everyday miracle. When something happens so regularly, I suppose it is really not a miracle. But like flying at 30,000 feet, it certainly would seem like a miracle 100 years ago.

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There is no present like this time

In a world as fast paced as this, we still only have the moments that every man and woman and every creature on the planet have in experience. Whether your time on earth was a short thirty years in pre-historic time or those same thirty years in the middle of the Dark Ages, still those moments of your life come and go. All those presents are past. And when we live in constant expectation, hope and anxiety about the future, we are only partially dwelling in this present. Similarly, our minds and selves are invested and placed in the past—for good or ill—we are just residing in the present but not open to it. With so many things to occupy the mind in twenty-first century, we are blessed to have any moment where we can be present to ourselves. Other forces command our attention and some of us are easily led. We are constantly entertained but that must distract us from the original nature of ourselves on this planet. This is not to showcase the singular quality of heroes and geniuses; it is simply to note that our places in time and place and family and fortune and tribe give us perspectives that can contribute to a dialogue about what it means to live at this particular moment. It is elusive because it is background of our lives, unless we stop, take a breath and make measure.

 

We may never know this particular moment for several reasons. We delude ourselves into thinking that this particular moment is just like its sister moment before and after. This one moment will predictably lead to the next. But, in fact, this may be a singular moment; one where everything changes. Where both the past and future are re-cast and re-calibrated. But this singularity is dependent on our showing up, which few of us really do. We may be able to divide the human race into large categories by where their orientation rests—to the past, to the future, to the present.

 

So, each moment is a gift but like many gifts, we don’t acknowledge the gift or the giver. In fact, we may pass along the present because we are not ready to receive it. Maybe, to be present, one needs to meditate deeply, to be centered, to wrap oneself against the onslaught of the noise around us and most importantly, the din within.

 

I do also think that being in the presence of others in conversation or prayer can help us embrace the moment. We know when this happens because these moments are memorable. We slow down time and focus here and now. Our need to connect overrides the noise and chaos, the worry about yesterday and the troubles of tomorrow.

 

There was today

This evening

This sunset

This moment before twilight

Just when the osprey returned to the nest to feed her chicks.

That moment.

That present.

That gift.

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Lessons my father would have taught me had he lived

I thought about writing this essay as I was trying to figure out some mechanical problem. At home, I happily tackle nearly every problem—plumbing, electrical, digital–despite not ever knowing what I am doing. This attitude distinguishes this part of my life from most of my other experiences where I don’t try my hand unless I am nearly an expert. I think I picked this up from academic training where you learn to deny your interest in anything but your own area. Friends ask my opinion about all sorts of things and I can always defer, “I am sorry to say that is really outside my area.” This doesn’t work when we are trying to figure where to go for dinner but it works in lots of other areas, especially with other academics.

 

In hacking the repair of a broken ceiling fan, I was thinking about all the wisdom and know-how that my father may have passed on if he lived past the age of 45. When he died, I was 14 years of age and he was right in the middle of teaching me to be a caring respectful and contributing adult. For me, his oldest daughter, he held high expectations for my character. He could have cared less about other things I could have achieved. I wonder if I would have held the same ideals in place for my own children.

Lesson #1 Fix things
So, my willingness to tackle these projects can be traced, I think, to playing around in our cellar where my father’s tools were randomly gathered. He never had any nicely arrayed selection of screwdrivers, saws and hammers. In fact, I don’t think we ever asked permission to use his tools, or take odd pieces of pipe and plywood. We were never asked to put things back where we found them as well and I am imagining that my father must have run over plenty of these tools when he was mowing the lawn. But certainly as I think about it, had he lived and had I asked, I am quite certain he would have taught me how to fix a washing machine agitator. He already taught me how to build a motor and to understand the armature and the magnetism of the electric current through the metal bars.
He has also taught us how to mount an old lawn mower motor on a chassis so we could make a go-cart. I remember playing with the spark plug. This was all great fun. I don’t remember my mother ever warning my father that we could hurt (Our first go-cart didn’t have brakes.) This all makes me think that I would have been miserable under this current regime of parenting.
We also build a miniature golf course, digging up holes in the lawn and adding sand traps and water features. We used saws and hammers and nail and string and whatever we could find. We would regularly send divots sailing through the air, borrowing my father’s clubs and ripping up the lawn, Once again; he seemed not to mind at all—the lawn or the golf clubs. It was as if we could do anything we wanted as long as we were busy and learning things and not just hanging around. He was at the heart of him, a hacker. Someone who would apply a temporary fix and be happy with it. So from him in observation and in instruction, I learned to work with my hands and to fix things that I could. Part of this, I am certain, were the requirements of being working class. Calling in a repairman to fix the toilet is out of the question. It compromises your manhood and working class resilience.

Lesson #2 Being a man

My father was a veteran of World War II. He was a lace weaver early in this working life. I recently learned from the Census data that his birth year was estimated to be 1919. We thought it was 1917 or 1918 and his birthdate the 17th or 18th of August. It seems odd to me that much of this is unconfirmed. As a man who married late (30 years or so) maybe because of the war, maybe because he didn’t want to settle down, he was a father quickly About eleven months after they married I was born, a baby girl, when maybe a boy would have been more welcome, although I never felt like that. I think in his expectations for his children, my father couldn’t tell his sons from his daughters. We could all play baseball and drive the go-cart. He could all be good in school. We could all be crazy and silly.

My father taught me how to be a man. I considered that he was out in the world, doing things and fixing things and helping people and making money and I wanted that. I had no interest in cooking and sewing and being in the house when all the action was outside. He was to me what people in the fifties would call a “stand-up” guy, the sort of man who did the right thing, who honored his obligations and kept his word. I wanted that, too. I didn’t want to be liked in school but I did want to do the right thing. From an immigrant family with a tradition of working the fields, he distrusted money made in other ways. He urged me to save my money to buy a house as quickly as I could and to avoid the rigged rich man’s game—the stock market. He was constantly busy. I never recall him sitting with a book, except when we were on his lap and he was reading a story. As a man, he was different from any of the men on our block. He obviously loved children, loved their play, and admired their imagination. That went for all kids. While it may have been a manly thing to assign all of this to older siblings or to the women, my father dove right it. What kind of man did that? When I think about his tools, his golf clubs, his ceremonial sword from the Philippines, a cellar full of the body of washing machines, tubes of mercury and vials of oils and grease—all were available to us. In retrospect, I think, my gosh what a generous adult. What an embrace of our creativity and curiosity.  What sort of dangers did he leave for us to discover? Did we need more protection?

 

Lesson #3 Being a stand-up guy

And, he was the rare individual who could find a lonely person in a crowd and seek them out for company. Even though, he could be the life of the party and the center of attention—which he never sought. In this part of this personality, he was everything I wanted to be. A few months before he died, we went to the 9th grade father-daughter dance and he made a point of dancing with all the girls whose fathers were sitting things out. I asked him about this and he told me—in a moment that I still see in my mind’s eye, that like him, I could spot loneliness and sadness and when I did (and because I could) I was obligated to do something to ease that pain. I don’t know how his friends regarded him but I know he was a good man, always willing to lend a hand. I see much of him in my brother and his generosity and in this kindness to his children and to people in general. I remember as well how many times aunts and uncles would tell how much I would miss him and how much he loved us. Maybe, that is what one says to children whose father has passed away suddenly. I read it, however, as a sincere concern because he made it clear how much we loved us.

Lesson #4 The excitement of the tiny

I cannot look back and take an honest look at our income and expenses. I really don’t know how much my parents struggled over money. I know that my mother would have imposed a budget on my father’s spending and drinking if she could have. We lived in a house that they owned but it constantly needed repair. That wore on her; he was more relaxed about that and everything else. I share his tendency to put off addressing issues until I have to and her anxiety about things precipitously falling apart. He dreamed of living on a farm and for a while he had rabbits. I think he had other dreams for us as well. My mother, I think, dreamed of not having so much to attend to and not carrying so much of the burden of feeling not up to any of the tasks that presented themselves. Whenever we asked her what she wanted for Mother’s Day or Christmas, she always said, “Peace and quiet,” which we could never give her.

But the dreams of a farm, the possibility of a great vacation, like trips for ice cream—everything was more fun when my father was around. We would bring us snacks when he came home from the bar he used to frequent. He would be inordinately excited about this. He would buy the latest toy and happily try it out with us. I am doing my best to remember that lesson. With aging and aging friends and anticipating the next few decades, I find my mind more occupied by my mother’s perspectives than my fathers—more about loss and anxiety and less about fun and possibilities and living for today.

 

Lessons #5 Lessons about lessons

One could note that all of these lessons may be seen through rose-colored glasses. Maybe, I would have fought with him. Maybe, he would have placed obstacles in the path of college or VISTA or graduate school. Maybe, my coming out in my thirties would have been delayed until he passed away. None of this is knowable, of course. So, I do my best to piece this all together with remnants of memories, like any storyteller, fashioning one plot or the other. It seems that we would all be better off if parents would write letters to their children to answer questions that the children won’t raise until after they are dead. This wouldn’t have to be long detailed accountings of their lives but they would set forth the big questions and the big answers. To know so little about our parents and their parents is to showcase the unfortunate and existential fact of generational developments. We can hardly make sense of the present and can scarcely understand the generation that follows us, even though we were just so recently in their shoes—in the midst of building a career, carving out an identity, obsessed with raising children.

So these lessons that I am taking from my father are my own markings of his legacy. I am quite that there is plenty left on the cutting room floor and even more that I have so incorporated into my core identity that I can tell his influence apart from my own thoughts.

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Can an old dog teach new tricks?

It remains a question whether someone who has taught successfully (as measured by student evaluations and peer assessments) at the undergraduate level can teach students of her/his own age. After all, a skilled kindergarten teacher may be out of place and skill-set in high school science or maybe not. Maybe, the meta-talent of teaching (deep understanding of content, profound comprehension of where students are, the ability to change tone, accent and appeal, the meeting of where students are with the challenge of where they will be after an encounter with the material) rests far above the content and specifics of teaching physical science or English. Maybe, some of us are master teachers, who are not only good in specific classrooms and subjects, we can also think about the process of teaching broadly and deeply. Some gifted teachers may be able to teach almost anything to anyone.

The actual genius and mastery of teaching is in itself a rare thing. Despite fifteen years of college-level teaching, I am nowhere near being that exceptional teacher but if an interest in self-improvement and a commitment to engaging teaching were half the formula, I would be well on my way. To teach the transferability of my teaching chops, I decided to teach a course at our local lifelong program housed at the local university. Typically, these programs are geared to adults sixty years and over and are peer led. No tests, no credit, no stress—just the joy of learning. Courses include history, arts, wellness, creative expression and others as well as travel and special interest groups. My plan was to teach one concept in sociology (the sociological imagination) and have older students apply this to their lives. The sociological imagination suggests that we cannot understand our own lives without understanding the social, historical, political and cultural environments of the time. This concepts fights against our tendency to believe that we are self-made women and men and points us to an examination of generational differences, changes in norms and values, changes in material conditions and much more. The students were challenged to write short autobiographies and then translate these into creative projects, fashioning sociologically informed stories of their lives. The class was to meet for three sessions in early December 2017.

The challenge of the comfort zone

As the time of the class drew near, self-doubt and panic began to set in. Could I take an exercise that worked with undergraduates to a classroom where students ranged from their mid-sixties to their late-eighties? Could I interest students in sociological ideas? Would they be willing to share their observations about their lives in a setting like this? Could I reasonably expect students to create class projects in such a short time? And, could I do this in three weeks of classes that were 90 minutes long? And, most importantly, after teaching undergraduates for such a long time, what made me think I could teach people my own age and above? As I wrote earlier, are those teaching skills really transferable?

I have to admit to suffering a nightmare before each of the first two classes. These were completely typical anxiety dreams, the first about not being able to get to my classroom because the elevator had disappeared and left in its place was a drawbridge that was up. The second involved teaching a classroom full of mustache wearing lumberjacks in a room with twelve doors, all opening in rapid succession. When I followed a noisy marching band to quiet down, I got lost in my own college in the toy department and couldn’t find my classroom again. Completely normal. That I still suffer from these after teaching so long is a topic for another essay. Let’s just stipulate that I did not imagine that teaching students my own age would be a walk in the park.

However, I must say that I very much enjoyed working with older adults. It is a wonderful experience to share the benefits of the learning one has done, as an older teacher and as an older student. Because I have been working with these ideas for so long, I have distilled the essence and promise of them. My version of sociology may be pretty far from versions held by other sociologists. I suppose this is the case for poets, as well. I may oversimplify the ideas that are core to the discipline. But, for me, these concepts and theories are profoundly helpful for people to understand who they are in the world. And, because, older adults have an opportunity to look back and reflect on their lives, the sociological imagination allows us to see both broad strokes of history as well as the contingent natures of our life paths.

Organization of the class

The course met three times. During the first class, we discussed the sociological imagination and the ideas of sociologist, C. Wright Mills. I asked each of the students to tell the class about his/her career and the paths not taken—careers that, in retrospect, they may have pursued had circumstances been different. In a class of sixteen, only one man would have followed the same career path. I also asked the students to identify five historical events that happened during their lifetimes that they believed had the greatest impact on them. With a twenty-year difference between the youngest and oldest student in the class, we readily identified the differences between growing up as a child of the depression and experiencing childhood as a member of the baby boom generation. The impact of these differences could be readily traced to the older students’ life courses. For the second class meeting, students were tasked with writing a three-paragraph autobiography, which they would share with other students in class.

In the second meeting, students exchanged their stories in small groups, where I asked them to identify common themes and differences. Out of these conversations emerged several points of agreement and common understandings. In this class, I offered a number of resources where students could research their histories.

For the third session, students were asked to begin to think about a creative way to tell their life story or to focus on a transformational event. Not all students were prepared to do this assignment. However, a few were and these were insightful expressions. Many students noted that they had never thought about the historical context of their lives; others said this assignment prompted them to begin chronicling their life story for their children and grandchildren. Still, others reported that they began to better understand their life course after doing some research on historical events. Students who took up the challenge of doing the creative project used the metaphor of life as a great unveiling, as a bookshelf with stories to be told and as a spreadsheet with pluses and minuses and large fields of undetermined outcomes. In this final class, I also distributed The Summoned Self by David Brooks, the columnist for the New York Times, an essay that explores the contingency of careers and life plans which I thought would resonate with a number of the students.

In my undergraduate teaching, I always do this assignment along with the students in my class. On one occasion, I create a three dimensional board game with Chutes-and-Ladders-like paths signifying unearned good luck and undeserved bad luck all winding through historical events and personal mileposts. Because I have spent most of the past twenty years as a PhD sociologist, I sometimes imagine that I have already examined every facet of my life worth examining. However, in the assignment, I focused on my year as a VISTA Volunteer and realized for the first time how profound that experience had been. In fact, I ended up dividing my life into Before VISTA and After VISTA. I got to include Parables, little books where events of that year taught me lessons I am still processing and missing photographs where images of people and events that were key are missing from my scrapbooks. This exercise took research—fact checking and memory checking— to make the story complete. I found it incredibly rewarding, despite the fact that I thought I had already covered this territory of my personal autobiography. Having the opportunity to discuss this project in the comfort of a classroom of my peers made all the difference for me.

The next round

With few exceptions, the students recommended that the course be taught again, offered in five or six sessions instead of just three. Most observed that they would continue working on the project they began in class. Students also observed that the course included just enough sociology. I know that from the experience of teaching this course that older students like small group work. They also appreciate a speaker who speaks loudly and clearly and who writes carefully on the board. Some are interested in more reading related to the topic; other less so.

I aim to think more clearly about the learning styles and approaches of the older student. Many have wonderful experiences that would readily be the subject of some compelling story-telling. If in the next round of this course, we can build up sufficient trust among the members of the class, I would like to showcase these stories in a public setting. With two semesters left to teach at my university, I am also more sensitive and aware than ever of the importance of understanding the students in front of me, from their generational membership to their culture to the ways in which the world manifests itself to them. What I most interested in is what I can learn from them in the limited time we have together.

 

 

 

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Giving Until It Helps

There is a lot of good in the world. We focus too much focus on people and institutions that are behaving badly and on things that are not working, major failures and minor aggravations. Instead, we should be paying attention to things that really matter more—like the decent work of millions of people who assure through adhering to social conventions that our lives are livable and in many cases, pleasurable. David Brooks recently quoted Pope Francis who described people who were kind to the needy, who took their turn, and who instead of running the other driver out of the merge lane waved him into traffic, as “the artisans of the common good” (https://nyti.ms/2E9c6iR). I strongly support celebrating this sort of behavior simply to remind us that without it, we’d need to be more vigilant, more wary of each other and require more protection from the other guy. Think of the quiet comfort we enjoy in daily interactions and how one rude clerk or nasty customer can rattle our whole day. Pile too many of these together makes us bitter, prone to act in kind, setting off our own discharges and sparks of misery.

We don’t hear enough about small acts that make a difference, like making a loan through KIVA. About twelve years old, KIVA invests money to micro-entrepreneurs in 82 countries across the world (https://www.kiva.org/). KIVA is not a government agency, neither is it funded by major philanthropists. KIVA relies on small donors—as little as $25—to fund its work. To date, 2.7 million loans amounting to $1.09 billion dollars have been granted to farmers, shop owners, parents who need to pay school fees for their children and other reasons. More than 1.7 million lenders—average citizens and community groups—have loaned these funds. And, in 96.9% of the time, these loans have been repaid. Once repaid, these funds can be re-lent to support the dreams of another entrepreneur or hopeful parent. I established a student-managed KIVA fund at my university, loaning more than $2500 over a five year period. We have funded cucumber farmers in Estonia, a truck driver in Belarus, a women’s coop in Chile, a store in Peru and many more endeavors. We feel that we contributing in a small way to the economic welfare of the individual, her family and her larger community. Certainly we are not saving the world, but we are contributing in a small way to do our part.

Each at the end of year, I receive a report on our fund which prompts me to make another loan. I defer the choice of who to support until I get a chance to meet with my sociology class. Here, we look at our portfolio of outstanding loans to see where we would like to make this small investment. It challenges students to think about how much difference we can make in someone’s like with a $25 loan. Our loan joins others until the amount requested, let’s say $500, is fulfilled. Once the loan is granted, we’ll get reports on the progress of the project and begin to receive loan repayments. To maximize the sense of community, individuals can create a team made up of people who share a common interest—members of a church group, a school, a large family or other basis. The team manages a portfolio of loans and maybe even engages in some friendly competition with other teams about who can loan the most money or manage the most loans. There are more than 36, 000 teams that loan through KIVA but the two leading teams drew my attention (https://www.kiva.org/teams).

In first place among the teams with the greatest amount loaned are KIVA Christians, founded in August 2008. They have 20,648 members and have lent $42,000,000 dollars pooled in 758,425 loans. KIVA Christians loans have biblical inspiration, which they cite in their reasons to give. “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved, so you must love another” John 13:34 and from Corinthians 13:8 “Love never fails.”

In second place is the A+ team of Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists and the Non-Religious, also established in 2008 The A+ team has 38,108 members (almost twice as many as the Christians), loaning $36,109,650 (less than the Christians) with more than 1,200,000 loans (about half a million more than the Christians). The Atheists et al loan money because they “care about human beings and understand that it takes people to help people. We are one human family and know that people can do good without believing in a god.”

What are we to make of this? I am wondering which group came first? Maybe, a Christian and her pal, the atheist, met in a coffee shop and set down this dare.

I bet that we Christians can donate more money than you non-believers.

We’ll take that bet and challenge you to put your money where your God is, replied the Atheists.

I suppose we could review these portfolios to see what causes each team has supported. Have the atheists spread their investments far and wide while the Christians have supported a different set of causes? Who is supporting the Palestinians? Muslims? Women and children? School fees for girls? Maybe, there is very little difference between their giving patterns and if so, why donate under the banners of Christianity or non-faith. Does even something as seemingly non-partisan as giving a loan carry partisan baggage? What is really the best way to organize ourselves to do some good? Maybe, a donation to KIVA is, in fact, not the best use of these donations.

I would affiliate with neither team nor claim for giving. I don’t want to give because we are all members of one big human family. That squishy premise doesn’t motivate me at all. On the other hand, loving one another as God loves us also leaves me wanting for more. I can harbor all the positive feelings for my fellow human beings and wish them well as other beings on the planet but until I seriously consider the moral obligations that underpin the simple statement that all human lives have equal value, this one human family loved as God loves us, doesn’t carry much weight. Neither principle calls out my obligation to give in a world where the spoils of our economy and polity are so unevenly distributed and where some have so much and others. These inequities should serve as an embarrassment to all of us.

This, for me, is more a matter of justice than it is kindness and compassion. Similarly, I don’t want to give only when the mood strikes me–when I see that suffering child or when I am moved by a sad tale. I want to connect this giving to commitments that motivate me do more and to do it effectively. If I can shop for a cellphone, I can certainly research whether my donations are doing the most good they can. If the world were suffering from too much kindness and compassion, that would be one thing. But the fact that most of the world lives at subsistence level and a small percent of us are doing quite well is quite another. And, maybe, a donation to KIVA is not the best use of my charitable dollars after all.

As a privileged member of a rich nation and a beneficiary of the gifted generation, I believe that I have encumbered unplayable debts. These include government programs and unparalleled prosperity. A recent book (Goldfield 2017) argues that the generous governmental programs—GI bills for education and homeownership, virtually free college tuition at public institutions, and much more—were designed to lift the working class to the middle class. This gave many of us baby boomers and by extension, our children, great advantages that the current college-age population can scarcely believe. We do have to note here that those benefits were not distributed to blacks and other minority groups but they did establish the point that well-crafted government programs served as escalators into better lives for millions of American families. And, according to most economists, these approaches were far more effective than tax-cut supply-side approaches championed by conservative ideology.

It didn’t occur to me until much later in life how much these advantages propelled me and my peers into a middle class life. If I count up all the fortunate breaks that fell my way, all the investments made in me because of the sacrifices and forethought of others, it is clear I will never repay these. How do I repay those Catholic sisters and my parochial school for an excellent education? How do I repay the government for those social security and GI benefits that arrived just in time after my father’s early death? How do I repay the enormous gift of free tuition for four years from my state college? How do I repay that Ivy League university for their scholarship to this working class student so I could earn a Masters Degree, which impressed many people more than it should have? How about those state-sponsored low-interest loans to first-time homebuyers that allowed me, a single woman, to buy a house after three banks had turned down my application? I could go on. These benefits meant sacrifice on the part of others, of course, and I have reaped the benefits greatly.

Prosperity for many of us came because the U.S. In the fifties and sixties was the unchallenged world economic power. This afforded us with great advantages.  This sort of wealth and wealth-making opportunities seduce us into thinking that we climbed through the class hierarchy and the world pecking order due to hard work and brilliant business acumen when in fact, other forces were in play. Much of the ease and prosperity we enjoy comes at the expense of others. The masters of the universe and kings of commerce have figured out how to create a global engine that spits out low-cost consumer products using the lowest wage labor and under-valued raw materials. We could make the argument that our brothers and sisters in the global south subsidize our comfortable lifestyles in the global north. Behind that great curtain of commerce, we cleverly learn not to ask too many questions about who has made this shirt and iPhone and under what conditions. We ignore that man behind the curtain and assume that some one is taking care of these questions. So much for the great human family.

Given that acknowledgement that we have benefitted from programs (state supported and private) and a favorable economy, what should guide our course for giving back. How much and to whom? What commitments should steer these values here? Local giving to alumni organizations? Scholarships to children like me? Perhaps there are other considerations to examine. Is all giving equally good?

For me, the commitment here rests upon basic math. As Peter Singer has calculated, the rich of the world (the 10% of earners) could easily devote 10% of their income to the poorest people on the planet affording them basic educations, clean water, avoiding needless deaths, better nutrition, sanitation and more (2015). Importantly, this would include not the just the richest citizens but many of us who have middle-class lifestyles. Singer’s plan is not directed at only those people we imagine are comfortable enough to give; he would argue that many of us are in that situation. As radical as it seems, this plan would right the world, as we know it. And, this is simply seen in an organization like KIVA or Heifer where a small donation of $25 (a dinner at a reasonably priced restaurant, yet another T-shirt) could really make a difference in saving a life.

The developing effective altruism movement directs our charitable dollars where they will do the most good to organizations and approaches that are vetted and proven to work. Many things that we expect to address poverty, illness and illiteracy don’t. (For more information on this movement and its applications, see Derek Thompson’s article https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/what-is-the-greatest-good/395768/). Movements like the effective altruism movement focus on populations with the greatest need addressing these with field-tested solutions. This approach eliminates the argument heard from so many—who knows where your money goes—and also addresses the concern that one may be throwing good money after bad.

So clarifying the motive to give–those unplayable debt and the great extremes in wealth built upon accidents of birth, the unfair distribution of spoils—and targeting effective strategies to address basic human need—work for me as a compass point for better giving and perhaps deeper commitments to making a difference. This is not to say that this movement lets me live with a clear conscience. Our complicated world is too ethically challenging to do that. But I can live with these questions and hope that they continue to reveal a truer path for me.

References

Brooks, David. 2018. How Would Jesus Drive? New York Times, Jan. 4.

Goldfield. 2017. The Gifted Generation: When Government Was Good. New York: Bloomsbury.

Singer, Peter. 2015. The Most Good You Can Do. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Thompson, Derek. 2015. The Greatest Good. The Atlantic online

 

 

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