The Mixed Messages Of Charity
Do you remember when you were a kid and your parents would tell you that you were too young to understand something? They said it when you were five years old, and again when you were nine, and repeated it when you were fourteen. I remember thinking to myself that I couldn't wait to grow up! I told myself that I would never condescend to a young person about life, and the world at large. I also promised myself that I would always remember what it was like to be a kid because it seemed to many adults had forgotten.
I have this sense now that I am multiple people in one body. I don't mean in a Sybil sort of way, rather I feel like I am a combination of myself at various ages. I just reached 50 this year but sometimes I feel like I am the 37 year old self-taught web designer just starting a new business. I also remember the 33 year old musician who spent 7 months working in the Middle East, or the 19 year old, impish yet worldly young woman who just landed her first professional singing gig. Perhaps the strangest feeling of all is knowing that sometimes there is a ten year old girl rattling around inside my brain. She's the most complex of all. She, like most other little girls enjoyed popular music, Barbie dolls and a little solitary time now and then with a colouring book and a package of brightly coloured crayons. Unlike most other kids though, she understood the painful realities of poverty, including sparse Christmases and awkward, probing questions from cruel little classmates. Every year at about this time, that little girl re-emerges and feels compelled to write about the experience.
Before I re-designed wasaga.com, this website had an archive of old "Day at the Beach" articles I had written. In one of these articles I talked about the Toy Drive and why some little kids (not all - just some) are embarrassed and humiliated by this well meaning tradition. A former co-worker was aghast that I would say such a thing. I understood her position. She thought that little kids should always wake up to find something under the tree. As a Mother and Grandmother and a confessed lover of all things Christmas, her home probably felt like a Norman Rockwell painting during the holidays. In fact her Christmas spirit and enthusiasm were infectious. I just wish it was like that for everyone. Unfortunately for some, Christmas is a source of stress and sadness. I don't disagree with the idea of toy donations for kids but I think that impoverished children want something more difficult than a toy; they want a happy Christmas and that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with gifts.
As a child I would have cherished any gift from my Mother. Even at the youngest age I understood her limitations. I don't recall ever asking for expensive toys because I knew that it would cause my Mother undue stress. Imagine that? A little kid worrying about the emotional cost of a gift? A colouring book and a package of crayons from her was worth far more to me than anything that could be donated by a stranger. Does that make sense? It was truly the thought that counted.
At the age of 10 I had a more adult sense of Christmas. I just wanted my Mother to be okay. She would sometimes get very down at this time of year knowing that as a single mom she just couldn't afford to lavish her three children with the things other children got. What she didn't know is that we were all okay with it. To me my Mom was an amazing woman. She managed to find a way to support three young children. We never went without food or shelter. It was the outside world that was so unforgiving. On the first school day following the Christmas break, classmates seemed to revel in a perverse boasting contest to determine who got more stuff. Poor kids would hope and pray that they would not be quizzed about what they got on Christmas morning, but it was inevitable. And so was the scorn when you weren't able to come close to matching the "what I got for Christmas" game. "Is that ALL you got? they would ask with an incredulous tone. "Oh, I feel so bad for you!" It isn't exactly the stuff that builds self esteem.
Poverty and charity are tricky. To a ten year old child the messages sent by Toy Drives can be unintentionally negative. By the age of ten a child knows there is no Santa Claus. They are well aware if they are rich or poor. Society is already teaching them that poverty is bad, poor people are lazy and stupid (a sentiment I heard far too many times), accepting charity makes you a burden on society. Now open that gift from a complete stranger and tell me if it retains the joy of any gift given to you by your parent by their own means?
We live in an overly commercialized culture where wealth and the acquisition of material goods is sold to us as the route to happiness. By contrast, poverty is the ultimate failure. The scorn that is heaped onto struggling single mothers in our society is criminal. Instead, they should be commended for their courage and resourcefulness. It takes loads of courage to struggle when it would be so much easier to just give up.
We are bombarded with TV commercials which equate expensive gifts with love. In one particularly disturbing ad, a salesman guides a customer to the aisle which will get the "Best Dad Ever" reaction on Christmas morning. To give you a hint it's not the cheapest aisle in the store. It's the one with the big screen, high definition TV's. The message is clear; the more you spend, the better the reaction. Advertisers are deliberate in their attempts to equate expensive gifts with emotion. Sure I understand this is just meant to be humorous but it's also tapped into a certain sinister accuracy.
Last Sunday morning I watched a segment on the CBS morning show about an anonymous Christmas benefactor known only as B. Virdot who during the depression gave people $5 to write a letter describing their need. $5 then was the equivalent of $100 today. The letters were heartbreaking! Poverty during the depression was unrelenting. At a time when there is scarcely enough money for food, when some children couldn't attend school because they had no shoes, there is still an acute desire to provide gifts for loved ones during the holidays. The recurring message of these letters was that they wanted to be able to provide these things for their families on their own. Some Fathers or Mothers were too proud to write for help so some letters came from the children themselves.
I think about this every Christmas. We are lucky to live in a prosperous country where most of our citizens do not struggle to survive as they do elsewhere. But that doesn't mean there isn't real need here. Every child at Christmas should have a warm, nutritious meal and a little gift to open.
Still, I have questioned the idea of toy drives throughout the years. Why toys? Why not money? How are we to know what gift is appropriate for a particular boy or girl? Why are we as a society so distrusting of the poor that we aren't willing to give these people what they really need?
The example of the B. Virdot benefactor was truly heartwarming. Virdot, later identified as Sam Stone was an immigrant who was living the American dream and wanted to give something back. As someone who started out poor he instinctively knew that what these people needed was not so easily identifiable. They needed money to do with as they wished. The letters sent by these depression era people shows that everyone's definition of need was just a little different, and every child's Christmas wish was known only by their parents. We all know that if a child wants a chemistry set, he won't feel the same about a board game. Why take these decisions away from the parents?
Perhaps as a society we have become jaded by tabloid journalism. It's much more provocative to report about welfare cheats and fake panhandlers than it is to talk about tens of thousands of honest people who are experiencing a temporary setback. Of course I am not saying that people should not give to Toy Drives. I am however raising questions about why they exist when what these families need is money, compassion and a more secure future. If one believes in the true message of Christmas which is to share your good fortune with those less fortunate, then it should follow that this sharing should not come with strings attached.
Merry Christmas one and all!
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