All Things Being Equal, They Are Not

The handsome, young, African American man—a guest at the homeless shelter where I volunteer—sure knew his Bible. He could not only quote passages but cite verse, chapter and book.

“Matthew 19, verse 21,” he proclaimed with rapid-fire delivery. “Jesus said ‘sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.’ Are you willing to do that? Will you sell your house and give the money to the poor?”

We knew who he was talking to. Of the eight people gathered in the shelter’s intake room, only two of us—the volunteers—actually had a home. His question was in earnest, as if my soul survival depended on my willingness to follow Jesus’s instructions literally. I could have responded that if I sold my home, I’d have nowhere to cook the dinner he and the others were eating. I could have offered all kinds of practical responses, but I could see no good emerging from such a discussion. It would only have emphasized the divide between the haves and the have-nots in that small room.

I haven’t seen him in the weeks since, but his challenge has stayed with me, probably not in the way he intended. Of course it’s made me more conscious of how blessed I am to have a home. More than that, it’s deepened my awareness of how significant our homes become as we age. More than a sheltering abode, our home serves as the archive of our life, a storehouse of memories, the very edifice representing who we are. For many, having to move from the home of a lifetime can feel like giving up on life itself.

And then there’s the practical matter. A home is a financial asset. We look upon our homes as an investment. When we sell, we expect to make money. A friend who is moving into a retirement community is conflicted over whether to redecorate her new apartment, which doesn’t suit her taste, which is exquisite. It’s one of those facilities where you buy in and are promised (for a price) all the services you need as you age—memory care, nursing, etc. She can afford a new decor, but because she’s a shrewd money manager, she’s not sure she wants to spend that money. When she dies, the apartment reverts to the facility. Her estate—that is, her children—will not benefit one cent from any improvements she makes. Should she spend the money for her own enjoyment now, or put up with an environment that doesn’t suit her so her children can benefit later?

The young man from the shelter would advise her to forget the whole thing and give the money to the poor. Would that it were that simple. Abigail Disney, granddaughter of Roy O. Disney, co-founder with brother Walt of the Disney Company, is featured in an article entitled “Embarrassment of Riches” in the January 6 New Yorker magazine. She’s a member of “Patriotic Millionaires,” an organization of very rich people who lobby for higher taxes for themselves and all ultra wealthy.

When she was younger, Disney told the interviewer, she considered giving all her wealth away. Instead she has given money incrementally, and because money begets money, she says she has ended up giving away more money than she initially had. She scoffs at billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates who have pledged to donate at least half their fortunes to philanthropic causes.

“I’ve given away much more than fifty per cent of my net worth, and I don’t intend to stop,” Disney told the New Yorker. “And, frankly, if you’re a billionaire and only want to give away half of your fortune, something is wrong with you.”

When it comes to philanthropy, how much is enough? The Bible says a tithe, or ten percent, should do it. When my mother was alive and living on her retirement savings, she continued to pay a ten percent offering to her church and other causes.

“Mom,” I’d say, “you already paid ten percent when you earned that money. You don’t have to pay another tithe now.” She’d give me that exasperated, you-really-don’t-get-it look that she learned from me when I was a teenager. When Mom died, my sister and I inherited the bulk of her estate. You’d better believe we both passed ten percent on to charity. The tithe that keeps on giving.

This morning I made a quick trip to the homeless shelter. With temperatures and wind chill plummeting to minus-fourteen, we’re organizing extended shelter time and breakfast for the guests this week. The shelter, which is run entirely by volunteers, usually operates only until seven a.m. Guests must fend for themselves from then until it re-opens at six p.m. After a quick meeting and short drive in a cold, cold car, I was especially grateful to walk back into my warm, warm home.

I settled down with coffee and the January 13 New Yorker to read an article about inequality. Our nation’s founders may have declared that we’re all created equal, but it doesn’t take long before life sorts us into folks who have more and less—some have more money, others less; some have more opportunities, others less talent; some inherit healthier genes, others an unhealthy environment, etc., etc. Throughout history, people have tried to resolve this issue of inequality. A core problem identified by the New Yorker is what philosophers call “the problem of expensive tastes:” what seems like a necessity to one person looks like a luxury to another.

My reading was interrupted by a ruckus on the ice-covered river that flows past my home. A bald eagle had landed and was tussling with something on the ice. At first I thought it was trying to get hold of a fish. Then I realized, to my horror, it was on top of a duck, tearing at the duck with its beak and talons. Not just any duck. The renegade domestic duck, an American Pekin, that I’d watched all summer and worried about since winter arrived. The mallards and golden eye have all flown away to open water. This duck apparently had its wings clipped before it escaped from the farm.

The eagle ferociously pecked and pulled on the duck. Then, unbelievably, the duck shrugged off the raptor and started waddling across the ice, a little shaky, slipping and sliding, but making determined progress. The eagle attempted a few fly-bys but for whatever reason stopped short of attacking the duck again. Certainly this was a contest between two unequals. Yet the duck apparently won the battle, if not the war, through sheer determination. It disappeared into the bushes on the opposite bank, either to quietly heal or quietly die. It has not reappeared all afternoon.

On my side of the river, I’m in my home, warm and comfortable. But not too comfortable.

Equals in battle?

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