This is the story about how a simple question generated a new way of seeing social problems.
In 2007, my good friend Dan and I were serving in the Peacecorps in Namibia as teachers. Dan always asked great questions.
“I was thinking, you know how the learners always ask for a dollar?”
“Yeah…” I responded with interest. In Namibia the wealth disparity was among the greatest in all Africa; Ferrari’s in the cities, mules in the villages. The kids we taught got it, a dollar was nothing to most Americans. And, they were persistent.
“Well, I keep thinking, if you give someone a dollar, why not two?”
I pondered this for a moment. We had both talked about whether it was a good idea to give money to the people who ask for it. During our official PeaceCorps training we were given explicit instruction here: do not give money to beggars.
Yet, we all did anyway. We spent two years in these communities. We developed relationships. And it was absolutely true, a dollar meant so much more to them than to us.
“I mean,” Dan continued, “we have more wealth than we really need. Logically, shouldn’t we just keep what we need to survive, and share the rest?”
We both felt uncomfortable. Even while living a modest life in the PeaceCorps, many of us were already making plans for when we returned. Neither of us wanted to live a life of poverty.
We gave what we would not miss. And we kept more than most on this planet would ever have. Dan was calling out a fundamental injustice with humanity: we share so little.
I had no answer. Neither did Dan.
This question haunted me for years. It wasn’t about whether or not to be generous; As teachers we both found ways to give treats and share our dollars. It was about the bigger picture: why was there so much poverty when humanity has created so much? Why not act logically: share and make things fair.
Most people are quite generous, donating to charities, volunteering their time, and participating in change. Yet total giving in the United States rarely deviates from about 2% of GPD. As a comparison, corporate profits rarely drop below 5%. That’s not a lot of sharing.
In fact, when we study human behavior we see just how big this problem is: the more money you have, the less generous you become. (google search: wealth and generosity)
There is a parable from the Bible that illustrates this age-old problem. It’s about a political leader who asked Jesus what he could do to enter the kingdom of God.
When Jesus heard this, He said to him, “One thing you still lack; sell all that you possess and distribute it to the poor, and you shall have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” But when he had heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. And Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
Wow, he couldn’t give up his wealth even to enter heaven?
Why is being generous so difficult?
We see this problem play out in nonprofits as they employ marketing tactics to encourage charity, going to such lengths as throwing extravagant parties, just to raise money. It’s an irony not lost in most nonprofit professionals, who would prefer to just focus on their work. Rather, they must also attempt to steward meaningful relationships with supporters to ensure a steady funding stream.
I speak from experience here: it’s exhausting.
Is there any hope for equality or peace?
Now, you may say that it’s just not in our nature to be so altruistic. It’s why the concept of World Peace is more of a sad joke than a real goal. Humans fight. Humans take. And we are, overall, pretty selfish.
We’re not alone in this behavior. In fact, these behaviors are strategies for surviving. Surviving, often alone, or in small groups, in a harsh world where resources are scarce, and not getting enough of them means you suffer. Or die.
Survival is what life does, and the survival behaviors of cheating, lying, harming, hoarding, controlling, and even fighting, are seen in other animals, as well in humans. It’s programmed deep into our reptilian, emotional brains: you are what matters most.
Survival behaviors are why we fight with our loved ones, why we hide secrets, why we cheat… they shed light on all behaviors that cause problems and make things worse, echos from our animal pasts.
Hold onto that second dollar. Don’t give up your wealth. Heaven’s not worth it.
Our survival behaviors influence to us through emotion, not logic. And, they become embedded in our organizational systems.
It’s obvious that they are a problem for peace. They are THE problem for peace.
Survival Behaviors are, in fact, the true cause of our social, economic, political, and even ecological problems.
All of this is good news, because if our problems are things we can study and understand, so too are the solutions. In fact, there are a great many solutions already at work.
We provide afterschool programs for kids because of the harmful survival behaviors parents use at home. We raise funds for the needy because of survival behaviors of a capitalistic class that shares little. And, we bring to justice corrupt politicians who break rules under the influence of survival behaviors.
Years later, Dan and I caught up.
“You know, I think there’s an answer to that question you asked about why not give two dollars when you give one.” As a social justice advocate, I’ve worked and volunteered in a variety of nonprofits. I’ve wrote, spoke and talked about the issues. I’ve spent decades working in community centers, working with philanthropic business leaders, advocating for policy changes, and supporting those protecting out environment. In every domain of life, I see the same problematic behaviors.
“Oh yeah, what is it?”
“I think it has to do with a lack of a modern belief system.”
“Well yeah, but how is that an answer?”
“I keep thinking, if you had asked me that question when I was a Christian, why people are so greedy, I would have had an immediate answer that involved the idea of sin and God. It’s nice to be reminded of what’s important, and encouraged to do the right thing, even if it’s a little manipulative. Healthy church congregations encourage each other, through a message of choice, to be less selfish and more generous. I mean, who wants to be called evil?”
“I see where you’re going: don’t church goers, as a whole, give more to charity than non-church goers?” Dan was right.
“Yeah. Think about it: religions are highly aware of our survival behaviors. They talk about them all the time, just with a religious perspective. Churchgoers allow themselves to be manipulated emotionally to balance the selfish survival behaviors that normally take hold. What if we could do the same things that churches do, only in a transparent, science-based way?”
This is not a new idea. I had done some research and found lots of inspiration in TED talks and research in psychology, sociology, and anthropology.
Dan was intrigued. “Are you saying we need a new science-based worldview to encourage us to be more generous?”
“Well, I’d join something like that, wouldn’t you?”
And so started the building of what I call Justice For Life. I invite you to take a peak at choosejustice.org.