What Do We Owe?

I was talking recently with a friend who is struggling with the question of how extensively to remodel the house that she and her husband just bought. Water damage means that they’re going to have quite a lot of repair work to do on the back wall, which brought up the question whether they should bite the bullet and move the wall back, making room for a larger kitchen. They have the money to make the larger improvement, although just barely. But my friend can’t quite wrap her head around spending that kind of money on expanding their house, when the world is full of so many much more desperate expenses. Can it be right to spend many thousands of dollars fixing up your house, when that money might be sufficient to build a school in India or Africa, when that money could make a house ravaged by Hurricane Sandy livable, when that money could get 100 women started in small businesses through an organization like Kiva?

How much do we owe ourselves and our families? How much do we owe our neighbors? How much do we owe our fellow human beings in distant places? How much do we owe pets, wild animals, the environment? Do we owe anything at all? Does anything at all rightfully belong to us?

If the answer to the question of what we owe is “nothing,” then taxes are an unfair imposition of the collective upon the individual. What is ours is ours. We worked for it (or inherited it) and we deserve to do with it as we please. If other people want things, they can go out and work and earn the money to pay for those things themselves. If the answer to what we owe is “everything,” then it’s time to join a commune, to live in a collectivist society in which everything is shared for the benefit of the common good.

Most of us, however, live in that ambiguous place in between. We want schools and police and roads and emergency relief funds, and we don’t mind doing our part to pay for them. Most of us don’t think that people who lose their jobs should go hungry, that children should lack health care, that people with disabilities should be just left to fend for themselves. We want clean air and water. We feel sad about children dying of hunger or disease, regardless of where they might live. We worry about the extinction of species and the effects of climate change. We want to be part of a compassionate human community, a respectful web of all life.

But we also want to be able to remodel the house or take a vacation or buy electronic gadgets. We want to enjoy the fruits of our labor—even the fruits of our unearned good fortune. So how much do we keep? How much do we give away?

Some decisions, of course, are made for us. The government expects us to pay our taxes, and we can end up in jail if we don’t pony up. On the other hand, we elect representatives to speak for us. Some of those representatives come down pretty hard on the “owe nothing” side, while others are quite willing to raise taxes if they think the circumstances warrant it. Our vote gives us some responsibility for how those decisions are made.

But beyond the vote, each of us has to decide that unanswerable question over and over. What is mine? What do I owe to some larger good? And if there’s a single right answer to those questions, I’ve certainly never heard it.

What I have to suggest is an experiment. Call it the joy test. If you have $50 to spare, make a deliberate choice on how to spend it: a shelter for the homeless, a pair of shoes, an arts organization, a nice dinner out, your retirement account. Commit the money, and then ask yourself how you feel about that choice. Does it bring you joy? Does it do something to ease a sense of anxiety or does your sense of discomfort grow? How does it feel a week, a month later?

I don’t know if the joy test is any kind of adequate answer as to what we owe to others and ourselves. But I have a sense that leading with our hearts, with our deepest joy, might be a step down the right path. Let me know what you find out.

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