When I was three, my parents made my sisters and me participate in a cruel experiment that bordered on torture. We stood in line with, what my memory tells me, hundreds of hungry people waiting for lunch. As the long line snaked toward the front, each person was given a bowl of rice, in solidarity with starving people world-wide who eat nothing more each day. A good object lesson that could have ended there. Rather, the point was driven home when every fourth person received not the small pittance of nutrition, but a steaming hot, fresh Big Mac. This was the mid-70’s. The iconic burger was still in its infancy, still considered a nutritious stack of veggies, meat, and bread all piled high with that secret sauce. (Go ahead, admit it. You’re salivating a bit right now just thinking about it. Me too.)
When my family and I reached the front of the line for our meal, luck had it that my oldest sister received the coveted sandwich of dreams. I got rice. And pouted. My father, a macho Navy fighter pilot, gently kneeled down next to his youngest daughter and explained the hard truths of the Haves and Have Nots. Snap! A photographer caught the moment on film, published in the local paper, and the story became family history. It also became a deep part of my psyche.
Skip forward a few years to my tenth birthday. This was not the 1984 of Orwell’s nightmares. It was idyllic suburbia where I went to school everyday with my best friend, who lived just down the quiet street from me. We wore our unicorn shirts, played Barbies all afternoon, and had plenty to eat. Yet, when I heard the first stanza of “We Are the World,” my heart crumbled. People were starving in Ethiopia? I had to do something. My parents gave me the cassette tape and my own boom box so I could play, and belt out, the song all. day. long. (Now that I look back on it, I realize what an act of bravery and love this was. I sang loudly and passionately, just not on key.) I was doing my part, saving the starving children of Africa by singing with my favorite pop stars.
The next few decades were peppered with my attempts to save the hurting, starving, disenfranchised. Every lost dog in our neighborhood found refuge in my arms while I searched for its family. (I distinctly remember even trying to rescue a pup who was not actually lost until I heard “Hey, that’s my dog!” Oops.) When I read in the local paper about a family in a rough part of town whose father was incarcerated, I sent an encouraging note along with a crisp twenty-dollar bill. Little did I know the “2700 block of Jefferson Avenue” wasn’t an accurate address. For years I have prayed that whoever actually received the cash used it for good. Then there was the truck driver who I considered a true hero. When Mr. Jones’ gasoline tanker sparked a fire just outside a children’s hospital, he bravely drove the flaming inferno several blocks away where it would not cause harm to the patients or families. Risking his life for others and suffering serious burns, this stranger found a place in my nine-year old heart. I wrote him a letter of gratitude and brought his family dessert at Thanksgiving. He, in turn, visited me at church after being released from the hospital and later attended my tenth birthday party when I received that infamous cassette. My worlds were finally coming together. I would do something impactful!
But I didn’t. I don’t. I still strive to help the starving, hurting, abused, and abandoned. I’m just not very good at it. Sure, I donate our used clothes to Goodwill. I put out a bag of canned goods for the Postal workers’ annual “Stamp Out Hunger” campaign. Sometimes, I even go out of my way to buy grocery gift cards for the less fortunate in our own town. But in my heart, I know it isn’t enough. I can do more. I should do more. I must do more.
My husband and I share our values with our girls, hoping to impart in them spirits of philanthropy, selflessness, and gratitude … not want. We talk openly and sympathetically about unfairness and inequality, and our responsibility to insist on better. We lead by example, giving our Haves to the Have Nots, as my father explained to me so many years ago. Yet, our example is not enough. We must do more.
But what? How do we raise children who are “in the world, but not of the world”? How do we offer them the “best education money can buy” yet deny starving children an extra bowl of rice? How do we wear clothes to fit the occasion, feel stylish to fit in, replace shoes that are slightly worn when children living in dirt don’t have the first pair to protect their feet from infections and disease?
Obviously I don’t know. I’m about to put on my new running shoes, go for a jog with my healthy baby, then drive to the grocery store to pick up my pre-ordered food. I want to do more. But I’m not.