Thursday, January 4, 2007

Drinking Starbucks While Others Starve

Sometimes I enjoy drinking one of those fancy Starbucks coffee drinks. While I'm essentially an expresso kind of guy, it can be a decadent pleasure to drink one of those concoctions that take 12 or more syllables to order, such as a "venti half-caf cinnamon dolce non-fat latte."

So a few months back I'm sipping one of these monstrosities and flipping through a magazine. I come across an advertisement for a charitable organization that feeds children who are literally starving and I realize that the price of this drink in my hand could easily provide one of these poor kids with enough food to stay alive for a week.

I don't want to fully face the question that I sense inside of myself, but I can't fully turn away from it either. Have I literally made a choice that my momentary pleasure is more important than the week's life of a pitiable child? When I toss this cup into the trash does it effectively insure that a child somewhere in the world will die, a child that would otherwise live if I had channeled those few dollars to one of these worthwhile charities?

Asking myself this question in such stark terms brings up at least four sets of feelings. They're almost like a gang, and they come at me one after the other. First is a sense of depression, selfishness and guilt. Then a hopelessness emerges as I consider the magnitude of the world's problems and feel overwhelmed to truly make a difference. I then contemplate the possibility of engaging in more action as a citizen of the world and notice a cynical voice arising within me which predicts that most of the money contributed to charities never reaches the people it is intended to help. Then comes the turning away, the inevitable and seemingly endless series of dissociative acts that attempts to silance all this distressing noise inside my...what? Head? Heart? Soul?

True fact: I could very easily do more to help some of the billions of people on this earth who are born into much less fortunate circumstances than I am blessed to have.

My mother-in-law travels to Kenya regularly to help HIV-infected women and children. She brings old sewing machines, shoes, vitamins and other seemingly mundane items that she gets at thrift stores, friends, neighbors. These pittances change lives forever. This Christmas, instead of giving presents for loved ones, she began coordinating efforts to purchase goats and chickens for families who have nothing. Her grandkids enjoy the idea that in Africa there is a goat named for each one of them. (For more information on the life-changing work that is being done to help HIV-infected women and children in Kenya, go to the Project Harambee website.)

I am very grateful for these and countless other humanitarian efforts. I am also very cognizant of how cushioned, protected and isolated from the world my life can be.

Do I give up everything other than the necessities I need to keep myself and family alive? Every time I do something purely for my material pleasure does that mean I am choosing my most fleeting whim over the lives of "the least among us"?

Maybe someday I'll get closer to living like my mother-in-law. Not yet. I'm not strong enough, humble enough, mature enough, SOMETHING enough. Until I grow more in that direction, I can at least do one thing.

I can thoroughly enjoy that delicious, creamy, sweet, decadent coffee drink. I can savor each taste and swallow, be grateful for the ability to enjoy it, and not take it for granted. I can luxuriate in it, let it lift my spirits, and try to my best ability to experience the flavors and sensations to the depth of my being, in this moment, fully alive to it. I can drink it for every person in the world who cannot join me. I can refuse to mindlessly consume this drink as if it didn't matter. I can act with the knowledge that I don't help anybody to feel better by making myself feel worse.

I once heard a famous preacher named Reverend Ike say that the best thing he could do to help the poor was to not be one of them. That sentiment is both comforting and coy, truthful and trivial. I doubt that the best thing I do for a starving child is to enjoy my coffee, but there are a lot worse things I can do and have done.

Meanwhile, I bless and am thankful for people like my mother-in-law who serve as role models for how to live a more balanced life in an unbalanced world.

No comments: