I donate but still feel guilty

Why can't I just enjoy my enviable life? Why can't I accept things as they are?

By Cary Tennis
Published March 8, 2011 1:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have an enviable life. I'm married to a wonderful man, and we are both happy, active and in good health. We make pizzas from scratch once a week, adore our sweet dog, live in our own home in a city we love, and spend lots of time with friends and family. We have lively discussions about politics, movies, books and beer.

I'm an attorney with a degree from a top law school and do policy work for a nonprofit, and my husband is the rare satisfied high-school teacher. Thanks to each of our families, we have no financial worries, despite many years of post-high school education.

The problem is that I am plagued by guilt. Having all of the above, and more, has made me feel an immeasurable obligation to all those who have so little. About once a week, I sink into a depression over the helplessness I feel toward the many struggling, sick, and starving people in the world whose lives are no less important than my own.

I've taken steps to address these feelings, which I consider valid and accurate. I work in policy reform for one-fifth of the pay I would receive from a large law firm, given my education and background. My husband and I give about 10 percent of our AGI (adjusted gross income) to charity (we do not belong to a church, but value the concept of tithing). We are vegetarian and have only one modest car. When we decide to have children, we have agreed that we will adopt. We have traveled to several parts of the developing world, and formed ongoing personal and financial relationships with organizations there. Still, at the end of the day, I feel helpless and selfish for not doing more.

Also, I feel anger toward the wealthy and powerful who so easily ignore the plight of the less fortunate. Just the other night, I was overwhelmed at the House's proposal to cut funding to Planned Parenthood. The disproportionate impact on poor women is so utterly wrong, I could just spit. Luxury cars and homes strike me as grotesque, though I keep those thoughts to myself.

While I am a happy and upbeat person, I frequently have to control these feelings to keep them from interfering with otherwise pleasurable activities. A vacation, a nice dinner out, even a night on the couch can be dampened when I contemplate our relative privilege and wealth. But what can I do? My husband tells me there will always be injustice in the world. That we do as much as any people can. And that I'm entitled to be happy with the life we have made -- and, yes, been given. Why can't I accept that?

Unclear Conscience

Dear Unclear Conscience,

I think you need to take direct moral action.

You have made calculations that allow you to live a certain way and still make resource contributions to the causes you believe in. Those contributions are good and necessary. But only acting directly with others in the world will give you the feeling of wholeness you seek.

True sacrifice on behalf of others means getting uncomfortable. It means giving up things that you don't want to give up. It means risking public embarrassment by associating with people who are beneath you socially. It means risking the disapproval of others who may think what you are doing is foolish. It means spending time on things that you really don't want to be doing.

If you want to stop feeling guilty, that is what you need to do. Frankly, a lot of us, myself included, when faced with doing true but inconvenient service or doing nothing and feeling guilty, we often choose the guilt instead. Guilt has a lot going for it. But it's not as good as action.

This is where we get to the problem of acceptance. When we cannot accept the world as it is, we are often paralyzed, and then we feel guilt for not acting. Before we can act in the world, we must accept that it is the way it is, and that we are the way we are.

Most people have something they believe they can't accept. Of course you feel anger at the wealthy and powerful who want to deny funding to Planned Parenthood. Of course you do. What's not to be angry about? And yet you do not see quite how to go into battle against the wealthy and powerful because you have difficulty accepting something. Perhaps what you cannot accept is that many people you work with, who are in most respects decent people, also harbor beliefs that would cause them to want to deny funding to Planned Parenthood.

This is the world as it is. Accept it.

Acceptance does not mean acquiescence or giving in. It means stop wishing. Stop wishing and see how things are. And start acting as if it really mattered if you see a man sleeping on the street. Start acting as if it really matters if there are families living in tents on vacant lots outside the suburbs. Start acting in your daily life as if this really mattered. Start handing out money to the poor. Start helping people less fortunate than you.

Ah, but what stops you? Now we're getting somewhere. If a homeless man asks you for your car, or your purse, or to stay a few nights in your house, what do you say? Well, of course you say no. You're not willing to give up everything.

Of course not! Why should you be? You're not Jesus! You're just a regular person.

You have a nice life. But that does not mean you won't feel anguish, guilt, anger, hopelessness, confusion and ambivalence. Why do you expect not to feel these things? Were you not taught in school that we are passionate actors in a turbulent history and that we throw ourselves into work to help others only because it takes our minds off our puny, grasping little egos for a few blissful moments during which we can feel like decent human beings before returning to our grasping, indecently comfortable lives as unelected rulers of the free world?

In other words, I am also suggesting that you remind yourself of our dark nature. If you spend some times with people and try to alleviate their actual suffering, that may provide the crucible in which you dissolve your guilt.

As a final thought, I keep wondering where this expectation of a rational equilibrium comes from. Perhaps it has something to do with your rigorous training as a lawyer. The law must needs see the world through a rational lens. And to succeed in the law you just throw yourself into it. You must transform yourself. In transforming yourself you risk leaving some part of yourself behind. The rational view does not satisfy all human cravings. Our reason is not enough. Listen to what's calling to you. What you are drawn to is a kind of moral truth. If you act on it, I think your guilt will begin to dissolve in the acid of difficult action.

Write Your Truth.

Want more?


Cary Tennis

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