I could have sworn I wrote about this last fall after my dental surgery, but I can't find it now. Last November I had a potentially very serious dental problem that was rendered nearly harmless by having money
. Harmless in this case means I narrowly dodged both death and permanent nerve damage, but had to spend a week and a half on the couch when my hypoadrenia flared up. I call it harmless because I was able to pay for the surgery (~$1500) and take the time off of work unpaid (more) without having to sacrifice anything, without having to worry
about sacrificing anything. I had the savings to make myself whole.
This was a huge blessing, and I found myself feeling out of balance. While I was square with my periodontist, I felt like dentistry itself had given me this huge thing (life, without pain), and I hadn't given it anything in return. So I went on Modest Needs
and funded the first person I saw who needed dental care. First when the problem was diagnosed, and again after my surgery.
I recently switched jobs. My new job is, among other things, incredibly lucrative in both pay and benefits. I got the same feeling. My future employer and I are square, but my ability to enter into a square deal that benefited me so much was predicated on a lot of gifts I received: raw intelligence, specific intelligence that is both rare and commercially valuable, being born in America, being born at a time when women were allowed to have careers beyond teacher/nurse/secretary, having parents who valued education and put a lot of time and money into mine. So I went to Modest Needs again and funded a family that needed to move for a job, and paid for it.
There is clearly a lot going on here. One thing is why it means so much to me to donate to specific problems* when the logically optimum thing to do is find The Most Efficient Charity and send them a check. And the answer to that is "I'm doing something different."
The second involves limiting my choices. The purpose of Modest Needs is to fund families who are normally self sufficient through one time catastrophic expenses, to avoid starting a cycle of poverty. I stopped giving for a while because I felt like none of the stories matched that mission- I could spot multiple Poor Life Choices in just the brief descriptions. For example, I think six children is a little much to raise on an enlisted man's salary. I stopped reading because it left me feeling judgmental and yet like no one deserved help. For these three rounds of giving, I chose to fund the first person with an appropriate expense, regardless how worthy a recipient I thought they were (or how much it cost. Modest Needs is run Kickstarter style, so other people contributed before me, but I always gave enough to complete the grant. I know the variable amount is related to question #1, but I don't know how). I did this mostly because I wanted to short circuit the judgement cycle, and because the point was to pay back the dentistry/job fairy, not fix all of poverty. This had the interesting side effect of feeding the idea that a person can make a bad choice, possibly even multiple bad choices, without rendering themselves unworthy of help. That is not an idea that gets a lot of food in my brain, but I found it really comforting.
But lately it's been gnawing at me that however awesome I am for pledging to fund something no matter what the cost and then totally doing that, I am still waaaay better off financially than any of the people I've helped, and still way better off than I was before the job/dentistry for charity donations exchange took place. The amount to help that family move did not even consume my entire hiring bonus. Does it really count as balancing the scales if it doesn't even feel like a sacrifice?
I'm midway through a book called Debt: the first 5,000 years
. This book is full of many fascinating ideas and also many statements that make me want to punch the author, and I don't have time to go into all of them now. But one of the things he talks about is the invention/evolution of money, and how it often starts less as a way to make three way chicken/cow/shoe trades, and more as a way to mark that there is a moral or social debt that cannot be repayed. You don't use proto-money to buy
things, that would be ridiculous. You use it to mark that you've received something beyond price (like marrying someone's daughter). Proto-money can function as sort of a limiter to make sure no one person is receiving too many more unrepayable things than they are giving out, or at least make sure other people are aware of it. It's also a costly signal to assure people you recognize they've done something amazing for you, but completely devoid of an attempt to make them whole for it.
I think that is what I am doing here. It doesn't even make sense to try to make sure I give dentistry as much as it gave me, because dentistry gave me this energy because it wanted me to have it. Everyone giving a little and ending up with more than they had is a success, not a series of imbalances. I'm now thinking of those donations as both recognition that I have received many gifts, and as symbolic acts that make sure the door between me and the rest of the world is open. The goal is not to equilibriate everything right away, but to make sure energy is still flowing in both directions, and that I'm not hoarding.
Not hoarding is important. I'm beginning to think that energy flow involves less exchange than I think. That what is actually happening is energy is flowing to everyone all the time, but they don't have room for it until they give something else away, and then boom, they get this cool new thing.** We just don't realize these cool things are being offered constantly.
As I struggle to push the "pay" button, I am wondering how taxes fit in to this. Taxes are conceived of as an exchange, but they don't feel like it to me. It feels like I'm being forced to pay for a bunch of stuff I don't want, and even the stuff I do want is incredibly poorly implemented, and this poor implementation is directly related to the fact that the exchange is involuntary. But as I mentioned above, this country has actually worked out pretty well for me. Maybe the exchange isn't fair, but I should accept what gifts it gives me.
*Modest Needs promises best effort to fund the application you choose, but for tax reasons can't guarantee it
**This feels like such a trivial example, but: I kept losing when I played The Movies
because my stars would age and I had no one to replace them. It turns out that you don't get replacements until you fire your existing stars, and then new actors start showing up to audition. I repeat this story quietly to myself every time I get the urge to hang on to something mediocre because I'm afraid to have nothing.