My hackles rose, however, when I learned from a close friend -- okay, my sister -- that the Ice Bucket Challenge was evolving into a bit of a popularity contest, particularly among teens, such as her children. Only the more exciting and risqué aspect of the challenge wasn't about donating the $100; it was about the brain-numbing thrill of dousing yourself with ice. My close friend -- okay, my sister, sorry, sister, that I am divulging the source -- has decided to respond to the challenge her daughters are receiving by donating the money for them and letting them indulge in the ice pouring exercise. That raised some questions for me: What are we, as a society, learning through this experience?
All right, before we go any further, I should issue a preachy alert. Anytime one starts talking about giving, some sense of moral piety is bound to emerge. And, so if it surfaces in the words that follow, my apologies in advance.
My flip answer to my sister was that I didn't have $100 to give to anyone right now (except National Grid, Time Warner Cable, Verizon Wireless and the countless other monthly providers of services whom I must satisfy with cash every month), and that if anyone challenged me, they were probably going to get a piece of my mind.
And, in a sense, that was the challenge: How to make the "piece of my mind" meaningful to someone other than myself.
I have given money to charitable causes -- and less charitable ones -- quite freely in the past. These days, because I lack money, I try to give time, food, and knowledge about various life skills that I happen to possess by virtue of living as long as I have. As the small food-growing operation in our backyard garden/farm/homestead continues to expand, I find myself feeling that it is important to remember not to sell the bounty of our harvests before: first, making sure that the nutritional needs of my husband and myself and all the residing animals on our land are met; and second, ensuring that we're donating at least 10 percent of what we raise to local food pantries. Anything that's surplus after that, in my view, can be gifted or sold. A piece I read by Garrison Keillor on "wisdoms" seemed to echo this point. He says that the credo of generosity says to give all you've got, but that if you do that, you'll have nothing and others will have to give to you. So don't give everything you've got, he advises. At the same time he notes that most people can give 10 percent.
But what is 10 percent? How is it measured? What if your wealth is not in the form of cash? What if you are a six-figure income earner with nothing left over after paying the bills that are helping you amass your wealth? What if the most valuable asset you've got is a skill you can teach, a practice you can promulgate? Why, I wonder, are these forms of wealth not figured into the traditional 10 percent figure of tithing or the $100 versus a bucket of ice over the head? Could an ice bucket challenge allow for these kinds of giving?
As some of you know, I have been a supporter of President Obama, and volunteered for his campaigns for the presidency in both 2008 and 2012. I will come clean now and acknowledge that the reason I did this had less to do with his politics and more to do with the value he placed on the $1 and $5 donations he sought particularly in 2008. The value of contributors was measured less in terms of the amount of money they could give and more in terms of the number of people they could mobilize for his campaign. Reading this logic in an Atlantic magazine article in June 2008 suddenly opened up a whole new scenario of political change in my mind. If all the poor of the country and the world gave $1 and urged their friends, neighbors, and family members to also give $1 and to tell everyone else, the insensitive 1 percenters would have no match. The tables of power would be reversed in an instant.
Reality has not quite followed this vision, but I do feel that politics in America at least has gained a certain dimension of egalitarianism through application of this logic. With the ice bucket challenge, however, there seems to be a push back. You are valued if you have $100 to give. You are punished if not because the bucket of ice symbolizes the quality of your heart. I don't oppose giving or ice, but I wonder if there is a way to revise the language so that we all are giving the best that we've got without worrying about how the dollars and cents measure up.