My Christmas Story

December 25, 2008 at 11:16 am 2 comments

shopping2

Time Is Running Out

This is a story that starts in a shopping mall in Toronto and ends in a small village in Gashora Region, Rwanda. It was a journey I took just yesterday, Christmas Eve day 2008.

Let me start with a blanket statement: I don’t like shopping. People who shop as a hobby mystify me. I find the entire activity distasteful–the endless quest for “things,” the con job advertisers do to get people to buy, buy, buy regardless of necessity and only to spur on the competitive spirit of acquisitiveness that gets people to buy buy buy even more.

At this time of year, I find the challenge of shopping intensifies and everything I hate about it comes to a boil. I leave my Christmas shopping to the very last minute, because I am usually so conflicted about what to buy for people, and how awful the whole experience makes me feel.

Then I feel awful about feeling awful, because after all, these are people that I love and I should be much more generous and thoughtful.

The true spirit of Christmas is not about the gifts, of course. And there are dozens of other ways to express thoughtfulness and generosity that don’t require standing in line with my bank card at the ready. But, despite that, I find it difficult to follow through completely on those principles: I can’t imagine showing up at my brother and sis-in-law’s with nothing in hand but a plate of homemade baked goods and an offer of never-ending babysitting. Hence, my conflict.

I get in a mall at this time of year and I quickly realize that no one I know actually needs anything. In fact, very few of us here in North America need anything. True, this year is different: people have lost their jobs or are worried that they are going to lose them; people are struggling to pay their bills, hold on to their homes, save up money for their kids’ educations … and much worse.

And I feel for the retailers: they too are simply cogs in the great economic engine. If everyone shared my disgust for shopping, they would go out of business and millions more would lose their jobs. Our great capitalist system would grind to a halt and our quality of life would decline considerably.

Despite all my protestations, I enjoy the benefits of our great capitalist system, even when I rage against its inequities.

Here in Canada, and certainly in my circle, the current economic hardships that many are experiencing remain remote. I know that I am among the more privileged. I also know that that privilege is largely a factor of luck. Being born in the right place at the right time to a loving family. I have a good job, I have skills, I have an education. I am in good health.

Lest I experience some devastating mental or physical health crisis, it is unlikely I will lose my home or my livelihood. (Even so, I keep my fear of becoming a bag lady–mumbling and cursing as I push my shopping cart full of empty bottles to and from my cardboard shack under the bridge–close to the surface as a way to ward off its eventuality. That is my own idiosyncratic superstition and way of managing that particular anxiety.)

And I am also always conscious of the even more basic things I enjoy: I can turn on the tap and get clean water. If I am sick, I have easy access to health care, and when I go to the pharmacy, I can be assured that I will get proper medication that will help me get better. I live in a very safe neighbourhood, in a clean, well-maintained building with 24-hour security, and in a comfortable home with all kinds of “stuff” in it–much more “stuff” than one person (and two furchildren) could ever need.

Jean Paul does not have any of those things. He is an eight-year-old boy who lives with his parents in a very poor area of Rwanda, just southeast of the capital city of Kigali. Both of his parents are unemployed and too sick to care for him.

I “met” Jean Paul today in the mall, when I was finishing up my Christmas shopping. I had just spent hundreds of dollars on luxury items–among them, an Aveda gift basket with a $31.00 moisturizer and an $18.50 aromatherapy oil in it; two Lululemon hoodies at close to $100 each; a $22 tin of sugar cookie mix from Williams-Sonoma and a $45 box of Godiva chocolates. Ridiculous, frivolous, decadent things that will provide momentary pleasure, but that “cost” me almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. I didn’t feel guilt buying them, or have any second thoughts about whether I could afford them. I didn’t feel much of anything at all, except a generalized annoyance that here I was on Christmas Eve day buying stupid things that will mean little to the people who receive them, and that mean even less to me.

The things that I bought cost more than Jean Paul’s family would spend on food in an entire year, probably.

This was my state of mind when I passed the World Vision display in the mall. I don’t know why I stopped, except that there’s been a raw emptiness yanking at my sub-conscious for much of this year: a feeling that I am wasting my time here on Earth; that I am not contributing or giving anything back that will have much impact after I’m gone. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis, maybe it’s the fact that I have no children of my own and thus, no one to live on after me.

Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson coined the term generativity to describe the key developmental stage of individuals in middle adulthood. According to Erikson, people aged 40 to 65 have “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation; a need to make a difference with one’s life, to give back, to take care of one’s community and planet.” Whether you buy that theory or not, it pretty much sums up how I have been feeling.

World Vision Motto

World Vision Motto

The World Vision display, with its bright orange backdrop and plethora of tent cards with pictures of children on them demanded that I stop in front of it and strike up a conversation with the two people staffing the booth. During that conversation, I asked whether they were getting much uptake from the shoppers. Sadly, no. “The economy is bad …” said the lovely Indian woman in the booth, her voice trailing off. Clearly, she didn’t believe this was much of an excuse. Nor do I. I plunked down my shopping bags and pulled out my wallet.

I went to the mall, and I ended up shopping for a child. Read that as you will.

This was no impulse purchase. In fact, I have been thinking about doing this for quite some time, but simply hadn’t been prepared to take the leap. I was too busy, had too much to think about, was too unsure of what it would entail–not the financial commitment, but the emotional one.

World Vision is a Christian organization. Another reason for my hesitancy. Historically responsible for horrific oppression in the name of eternal salvation, I have mixed feelings about the Christian mission movement. “You wanna be a missionary? Got that missionary zeal? Let a stranger change your life … how’s that make you feel?” Paul Simon’s lyrics were ringing in my head as I stood by the WV booth, but yesterday, I was hearing something else: There but for the grace of God go I. When I say this, I mean it in as secular a way as possible. Just as, in reading World Vision founder Bob Pierce’s quotation, pictured above, I can share that sentiment without dragging faith and religious belief into it.

And if I’m being really honest, I was a little worried that this is simply an easy way to assuage my white, North American guilt. Natural disaster in Indonesia? Humanitarian crisis in Darfur? Drought in Ethiopia? Genocide in Rwanda? Whip out a chequebook or a credit card, and believe you are doing something to help. And you are.

But it’s not my kind of charitable act if my convictions and commitment last only as long as it takes to recite my credit card number to the helpful operators standing by to take my call.

Sponsoring a child is different: it’s a minimum year long commitment (and I intend to extend that as long as necessary). I will write letters. Jean Paul will, I hope, write back. I will learn what his life is like–really like–there in his tiny village in Rwanda, a country that has been through such a tremendous amount of tragedy and that has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates in all of Africa. I will be able to help, in some small way, not only him but also his family and his community.

It was disconcertingly similar to the purchases I had made a few minutes earlier. I was asked did I want to sponsor a girl or a boy? From any particular country? Other than knowing I wanted to sponsor a child in Africa (unlike Sarah Palin, I actually know it’s a continent), how could I possibly answer these questions? It seemed too crass, and too difficult a choice to make. The kind lady with whom I was speaking saw my distress–in fact, I became quite emotional during the process. Such a relief–to actually feel something when pulling out my credit card in a mall!

It was recommended that I sponsor a boy (the pretty little girls get more attention; the stoic looking little boys have a tougher time of it). I was asked if I was willing to spend an extra $5 per month to sponsor a “HopeChild”–code for a child whose family is suffering because of HIV/AIDS. Maybe not him (they don’t tell you who, in the family, is affected). Later, when reading the description of Jean Paul’s circumstances, the gentleman in the booth helped me decipher more of the “code.” We can surmise that both of Jean Paul’s parents are sick. His own health is listed as “satisfactory.” That one word contains a world of pain, as do his beautiful brown eyes gazing out at me from his picture. He is not smiling, and his look is one of deep distrust–even challenge. It is as though he is saying, I will stand here for this picture, but while you claim you will help me, I’ll believe it when I see it.

I will meet that challenge, Jean Paul.

Incidentally, World Vision is very careful not to identify who, in a community, has HIV/AIDS–it can be devastating for the entire family, as there is such stigma and fear about the disease. In Africa, AIDS is invariably a death sentence. They can’t get anti-retrovirals to all the people who need them, not only because so few can afford them, but mostly because of poor distribution systems and the shame, stigma and poor education that prevent people from taking them correctly or taking them at all, even if they can get them. HIV/AIDS has and will wipe out entire communities and societies in Africa. It is worse than any genocide could ever be. Standing by and watching it happen, without doing something to help, is as great a crime as any other instance when we in the developed world have refused to intervene in other genocides. End of public service announcement: you probably know all this.

Yes. Yes, let me sponsor a HopeChild and let him be in an area that is most in need of that help. At $40 a month, it is less than I spend on Starbucks. I will spend $480 per year, less than half what I was contemplating spending on a new flat-screen TV that I don’t need.

For the first time in such a long long time, I feel like I’ve put my credit card to good use.

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Entry filed under: Personal Musings. Tags: , , , .

Winter Wonderland An Uncommon Cat

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. 7citychickens  |  December 26, 2008 at 10:13 pm

    Grace and Peace to you.

    I hope many will read your about your journey to sponsoring a child.

    We have three children through Compassion International.

    World Vision is a very good organization. For alternative gifts, in lieu of material gifts for friends and family, we gave chickens, a share of a well and seeds from the World Vision catalog.

    We, North Americans are filthy rich compared to 95% of the world.

    Sponsorship really does make a difference in the child’s life, their families’ life and in their community. The small monetary amount you invest goes a long way in a two-third’s world country. Your time and heart’s investment in your correspondences can’t be measured in it’s return. You may never know the total impact it has on the child. You make a difference.

    Reply
  • 2. zennifer516  |  December 27, 2008 at 11:26 am

    Thank you so much for commenting here, 7citychickens! That’s such a great idea: next year, I will ask everyone who is tempted to buy for me instead order something from the World Vision catalogue.

    What part of the world are your sponsored children in? It was so very hard for me to choose where I wanted to help. As you say, we North Americans are so very wealthy, so much more of the world is in desperate need. That is driven home so much at this time of the year. The abundance on my family’s Christmas table and under the tree was positively embarrassing, in so many ways.

    Peace to you as well,
    EM

    Reply

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