February People

February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March.
~ Dr. J. R. Stockton

Some people are wanderers. My sister, for instance, has traveled all over the globe – eager to see as much of the world as possible. I, on the other hand, am a wonderer. I wonder stuff. There’s less travel involved and zero lost luggage.

Some of my wondering takes me into dangerous territory, of course. Some of it lures me into thinking, rightly, I should be doing more than I am for others who can’t do for themselves. Some of it leaves me wondering where it all went so wrong. Some of it leaves me wondering if there’s a way back from the edge. That’s a lot of wondering without even leaving my chair. But, it’s part of what I do — apparently part of who I am.

Ever wonder why February has only twenty-eight days? I have. How is it, do you think, that February got shortchanged in such a shameless fashion? With 365 days to share, what could February possibly have done to deserve being neglected in this way? I mean, how difficult would it have been for one of the other months to share at least one day with its poorer neighbor? August, for instance. I feel certain where I live we’d all be willing to give up one hot summer day to keep February from feeling left out. You might choose a different month where you live, but I think we could make it work out in the end. Oh, sure, once every four years February is given an extra day for Leap Year but, really, is that adequate compensation for being slighted so grievously the other three?

So, February ends up as the homely step-child of our annual dance of days. And while I realize February is singled out in that Mother Goose rhyme used to remember the number of days in each month, that hardly seems to balance the books in February’s favor. “Excepting February alone . . .” Yes, February alone is thrown the scrap of an extra day once in a while. For the most part, however, we seem simply not to notice the missing day – the almost missing month. For a moment each year, we pay attention to February to find out from a groundhog whether winter will continue for a while or end early. Even Valentine’s Day doesn’t seem to rescue February from its diminished place in the count of our days on earth.

This puts me in mind of some of the other disaffected of the world. You saw that coming, right? If you didn’t, perhaps you’re not paying enough attention to my other writing. Seems I’m nothing if not transparent.

The world’s population now tops seven billion. That number alone is staggering, but even more staggering are its implications for us all – including those of us with plenty to eat and a dry place to sleep.

Have you eaten this week? How about today? If you have enough to eat – or likely more than you need – you are part of the earth’s privileged.

Consider this: a tall latte from Starbucks will set you back $2.50 or more depending on your location. Do that every day of the year and you’ve shelled out at least $912.50 for a year’s worth of coffee. Coffee! That’s a lot of buzz. Now, consider that over three billion people live on less than that same $2.50 (U.S.) a day. Is it just me or is something horribly wrong with this picture?

At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10.00 a day. Those scraping by at $2.50 are wrapped into this number. The poorest 40% of the world’s population accounts for only 5% of global income. The richest 20% account for three-quarters of world income. According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.” Less than one per cent of what the world spent every year on weapons could have put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen. It still hasn’t happened thirteen years later. Imagine what could have been done to actually feed the hungry. So much for beating our swords into plowshares.

There are over two billion children in the world and every other one of those lives in poverty. Did your mother ever tell you to eat your vegetables because there are starving children in China? Mine did. That was in the 1950s. I never quite understood how eating my vegetables was going to help those starving children but it didn’t seem to make any difference as to whether I was supposed to eat them. I now realize her point was that we should not waste what we have no matter how much we think we have.

Lest we miss the point, think of some of the television programs that litter our airwaves and scream for attention as viewing opportunities. Million-Dollar Rooms, for instance. Someone spends at least a million dollars to build one room of their house and that qualifies them to be featured on this inane show. I think we’ve supposed to be impressed and/or envious. Living in an enormous, castle-like mansion has always had a certain appeal for me – being waited on hand and foot – until I remember that it’s not all about me today, never has been, and never will be. Without occasional reminders, I tend to forget that I share this planet with those seven billion-plus people and have no more or less right to survive. That same million dollars could feed 400,000 people for a day or 1,096 people for an entire year. Have we really become so jaded that platinum plumbing fixtures and bathrooms larger than many houses are more important than human life? In 2005, the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. Somehow, that comes as no surprise to me. The poorest fifth account for just 1.5%.

I wonder what might become of the world if our “me” societies decided to actually become “we” societies? Rural areas account for three in every four people living on less than $1 a day (U.S.) and a similar share of the world population suffering from malnutrition. However, urbanization is not synonymous with human progress. Urban slum growth is outpacing urban growth by a wide margin. As a “we” society, we might take less a “the dog ate my homework” approach to human concerns in our world and our failure to address those concerns, and more of a “I am, in fact, my brother’s/sister’s keeper” approach.

There are approximately 237,880,000 adults in the United States alone. If each of those adults gave one penny a day each, a total of $2,378,800.00 a day could be raised to help feed the hungry of the world. One penny. Over two million dollars. At that $2.50 a day, 951,520 could be fed. That works out to saving those 22,000 children and feeding another 929,520, as well. Too often, I believe, people end up doing very little or even nothing because the problem seems so enormous. And it is. It’s easier to look away than to look for realizable answers. It’s surprising, though, how easily the problem can be broken down into solvable pieces. I’m not suggesting that the U.S. should pick up the tab for feeding the world, just that compassion begins at home – community begins at home. With the cooperation of the so-called developed world, the solution is within grasp almost overnight. The frightening part of this is that we still haven’t done it and don’t appear to be planning to do it any time soon.

Obviously, it’s not as simple as money – though I believe it could be were it not for the multitude of people who callously stand in the way. Along with crooked politicians, both in this country and in every country on earth, there are the people who sincerely believe they deserve more than the next guy. The logistics of getting help into some countries is compounded or completely blocked by regimes who don’t want a well-fed populace. It’s yet another reason education is denied to so many. An informed, well-fed people are dangerous to politicians comfortable at the top and intent on staying there by any means necessary.

The problem will not go away just because we ignore it, though. In fact, officially ignoring it has already brought a great deal of misery our way. Hungry, oppressed people often become dangerous, angry, desperate people. They can also become easy marks for groups pretending to want to pull these people up out of their poverty – though only as long as it takes to grab power for their group.

Worse than that, however, are those who seem to feel that people are responsible for their own poverty. I work hard for what I have, they say. Why should I be expected to provide for those too lazy or too stupid to do for themselves? Many of America’s poor are viewed this way by politicians and the people who fight hard to get and keep them in office. It’s an us-against-them attitude that’s designed to lump every disadvantaged person into the same boat. Certainly, there are people who play the system, too lazy to work for themselves. That, however, is no excuse to see all disadvantaged people as playing the system. Why help people who could help themselves? Odd that people who play the stock market in big and dangerous ways turn around and expect to be bailed out when their greed puts them out on the street – usually more figuratively than literally. The rest of us are left holding the bag – more literally than figuratively.

One of the problems with charity is simply our perception of what the word means. The word seems to have a bad reputation – and a worse connotation. “I don’t want your charity” is heard often. Why? I believe that’s because what too many people call charity is merely a hook. People we don’t pay a living wage are supposed to be grateful that others give their cast-offs to help.

Almost as bad as those who work at blocking help for a starving world are those who feel it’s okay to attach conditions to their help. Let’s face it, grace with conditions is not grace at all – it’s a contract. Real grace, on the other hand, is a covenant.

Without putting too fine a point on it, I try to remember that I (and even the wealthiest of us) can become one of the February people in the blink of an eye. Rather than encouraging me to draw back in fear and horde even more of the little I have, I find myself increasingly wanting to give back.

What can you do? Put yourself in the position of those in need – literally, if that’s what it takes. A very little amount of imagination should succeed in allowing you to see how easily you could end up on the receiving end of next to nothing in the way of help when you suddenly find yourself out on the street.

Americans love to think of themselves as pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Rugged individualists, they’ll say. The simple fact is that, almost without exception, none of us do any of this on our own. The host of people who help us along the way is generally huge. The CEO who believes himself worthy of multi-million-dollar bonuses each year tends to forget that the success of the company relies on him almost not at all.

If we’re not even willing to feed each other as the human family that we are, how is it any of us is simplistic enough to think we can live in a safe world? It’s very unlikely we’ll be hurt by those we genuinely reach down to help up. That’s not what we usually do – at least as countries. Instead, we reach down to help ourselves. A pig wearing lipstick is still a pig. Somewhere, we have to find the courage to examine our motives. In far too many cases, even our well-intentioned motives are thinly veiled attempts at feeling better about ourselves rather than helping others.

Imagine what good you could do with that $2.50 you saved by not stopping each day at Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, or any of the hundreds of locations now willing to charge you a premium for what you could have easily and far more cheaply brewed for yourself?

What if you personally knew even one of the 22,000 children who will die today? Would that perhaps change your definition of family?

Food, as it were, for thought.

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Want to know more? Here are some web links that may be of interest:

Poverty.com: http://www.poverty.com
Unicef USA: http://www.unicefusa.org
Action Against Hunger: http://www.actionagainsthunger.org
Hunger Notes: http://www.worldhunger.org

Please also check out my website, BaptistMan.com. I’m trying to get the site off the ground and also add my own bit of (admittedly warped) humor to this most serious of topics in an effort to keep sight of the fact that this is a solvable problem. www.BaptistMan.com