My junior year in high school at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, as a social service project, my fraternity provided a turkey to a poor family in Nashville for Thanksgiving. I volunteered to deliver the turkey and all the trimmings. The family was white—a mother, and five or six kids, who were running wild in a run-down house with a junk-filled front yard. I took the turkey into the living room of the house where the only furniture was a card table with six folding chairs and a worn couch in the corner. The mother was probably in her early 40s but looked like she was in her 70s. She explained that her husband was serving time in prison and that is why she was having a hard time getting by. She apologized for the state of her house and seemed embarrassed. Then she thanked me again and again as her kids joyously jumped up and down.
As I returned home, I should have felt self-satisfied for helping a needy family on Thanksgiving. Instead I felt terribly depressed, wondering what they would be eating the rest of the time. How could a family be living like that? What is wrong with our world that they can’t have a decent life? These are the questions that went through my mind, knowing that the next day for my family’s Thanksgiving, we would be joined by loving relatives and enjoy a huge feast.
What should be the proper response to those experiencing hardship and pain? Does delivering a turkey for Thanksgiving dinner get those of us who are well-off off the hook? Does working in a soup kitchen or putting a quarter into the cup of a beggar exonerate you or give you the right to boast of “doing your part”? What about contributing to a worthy cause or non-profit organization?
I came of age in the South during the 1960s when our national conscience finally conceded that giving a dime here or quarter there did not address the injustices of Jim Crow and legal segregation, giving rise to the Civil Rights Movement. Embry and I both participated in that movement, which I have written about in Civil Rights Journey. It was a pivotal moment in our lives for which we are both grateful. The idea was to change the system through new laws and by creating a more level playing field. In some ways our country has made great progress. But there is still a long way to go. Is the answer structural, systemic change? Is it social revolution?
Embry and I have also done a lot of traveling around the world and worked in (Embry) or visited many developing countries where shantytowns and slums are prolific, and distraught people besiege you with their hands out, pleading for help. How are we supposed to respond as fellow human beings?
These questions are just as real today as they were when I delivered the turkey to the destitute, white family in Nashville in 1958.
Embry and I are both fortunate to have been able to pursue careers which allowed us to work in fields that tried to address some of the structural barriers resulting in hardship and suffering for many. Embry has done—and continues to do—research on health policy issues, and I have helped develop affordable housing and seniors housing. Is this enough? Does this get us off the hook?
The answer is a resounding “no.” Of course it is not enough. It is never enough. Just ask anyone who has worked in the Peace Corps or worked in US AID projects or on any kind of social initiative. Ask our daughter, Jessica, who has taught elementary school in one of PG County’s most troubled schools. Ask our daughter-in-law, Karen, who is a public defender in Newark. They will not tell you how righteous they feel for “doing good.” They will tell you how hard it is to make a difference and how you do your job as best as you can though you often fail, knowing that your work is never enough.
The world is troubled and fragile. The issues facing the generations behind my own “Silent Generation” are in many ways more ominous and challenging with two doomsday scenarios staring us in the face: the ongoing threat of nuclear war and now climate change. The list of unfinished business is long: income disparities, ethnic and racial inequality, unequal access to affordable health care, domestic and world poverty, increasing polarization, and ominous threats to the democratic process in the Era of Trump, to name a few.
The answer, I think, to the question of what can we do to make a small difference is not an either/or– between trying to change or reform the system versus simply providing a helping hand when we can. It is a both/and. I believe that we should start on the personal level. We should treat all people fairly and respectfully and try to live a life of integrity and kindness. Then there are many additional options and possibilities for making a difference. We can give money to good causes, and we can volunteer to work in those causes and to provide hands-on help to those in need. If we are really lucky as Embry and I have been, we can work in jobs that at least try to be part of the solution rather than the problem. And we can address the social and structural issues by voting for candidates who will vote for laws to level the playing field and provide help to those who are struggling. We can get involved politically and speak out for candidates we believe in. We also can–and should– stand up for the causes we believe in and for justice.
But in the end, you will realize, as I do, that the world and the universe are much bigger than we are. All we can do is to play our bit part as best as we can, be grateful for the short time allotted to us on his marvelous, lonely, blue planet, and thank God for giving us the opportunity to make a difference.