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.

Humanism and a Theology of Liberation (Without Strangling Priests)
Humanism and a Theology of Liberation (Without Strangling Priests)
The Transient, the Permanent, and the Stitching Horse: What Remains True in Religions
Apocalypse: What Death Cults Really Want
  • Steven Mead

    Hi, Lynn–I like and think about this topic too. This TED Talk explores a controlled experiment of “How to Buy Happiness?” that is somewhat similar to your Joy Test. http://www.ted.com/talks/michael_norton_how_to_buy_happiness.html. Decisions made from a place of joy rather than fear or greed invariably lead to positive outcomes.

    • Lynn Ungar

      Thanks, Steven — I really enjoyed that. I find it incredibly cool when science bears our our religious intuitions.

  • Anonymous

    In the five years before the Great Recession, I had some “extra” income and struggled with this very issue. I spent some of the surplus buying books for two children’s literacy programs, which served three goals important to me: this supported local independent bookstores, allowed me to practice an avocation, and, of course, helped people in need. As much as hand-selecting and donating books brought me joy, however, there was also guilt involved. I often bought books at least once a month; if I didn’t (because I was busy, exhausted, or ill), I felt guilty for not meeting what I felt had become an obligation. I also donated money to animal-rescue organizations, bought quality clothing at clearance sales for a family homeless shelter, and donated reasonably healthful nonperishable food to our UU congregation’s ongoing food drive.

    Three years ago, my own family was significantly affected by the Great Recession. I still write an annual check to our local Friends of the Library and donate to a food shelf once a year, but my support of literacy programs that give books to children to keep had to stop. This is still painful, because it benefitted me at least as much as those it helped.

    At first I tried to see our financial setback as an opportunity to “take care of myself” for a change, but instead I felt cut off from the community. I considered finding a formal volunteer job, but my work schedule really couldn’t accommodate it during the week, and having had a Saturday volunteer job when I was younger, I know that not having the option of a full weekend would eventually lead to burnout. I continued to donate blood (as I had for years), but it wasn’t enough.

    Finally, during the past year, I started picking up litter in my neighborhood and at my transit stop downtown. Also, in the winter I buy birdseed to feed the pigeons and sparrows who live near my downtown transit stop. It isn’t much, but I am learning that “community involvement” doesn’t have to be part of a formal program (as I already knew), nor does it have to involve grand gestures.

    Last summer, the locally-owned pharmacy I use was holding a fundraiser for a customer who needed help funding a $3,500 piece of medical equipment that his insurance wouldn’t cover. During better days, I would have whipped out my checkbook and written a check for $100-200. Since I could no longer afford this (and was also dealing with funding some uncovered medical expenses of my own), I decided that I would donate $10 every time I went into the pharmacy until the goal was reached. I ended up donating $20 total.

    • Lynn Ungar

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. One of the things that Michael Norton points out in the TED talk that Steven shared (above) is that the amount of money that you give really has no effect on the happiness you receive for giving. I love that you have found ways to contribute that match what you are able to do and feel good about.

  • barbara hill

    Thank you to the two people who made comments. I am going to lead the February topic for my CLF on-line Covenant Group next month. We will be exploring our emotional feelings related to “giving” or “contributing”.. it started out with me questioning where I get the deep seated feelings of guilt when I spend time enjoying myself.. (taking a vacation just for fun.. riding my bicycle to the beach while visiting family in Florida). I was wondering whether it is the Puritan thread in my culture (and, yes, I am a member of UUA these days). I need to watch the TED video Steven posted. I want to participate on the inter-connected web with joy, not with guilt.
    Lynn, I will be using your essay as a resource. Thank you