my ethical scapegoat

Sunday evening, this is what I posted on Facebook:

All the thoughtful comments on my “What to do about Jovita” post are wonderful….but now I’m more tied up in knots than ever! It’s really not that big a deal, but as with any dilemma, there’s a whole lot of garbage/history/truth to either side of the issue. For some reason, this is the conundrum on which I am dumping all my angst. My ethical scapegoat, maaaa-aaaaa.

I never came to a solid, this-is-the-answer solution. Instead, I decided on a two-pronged approach: pay Jovita half of Friday’s wages and inform her that I wouldn’t be paying for any more days off.

“But here it’s the custom for workers to be given a paid holiday,” she said.

“Actually,” I corrected, “that’s only in the case of salary workers, not part-time hourly workers.”

I went on to explain that she was welcome to take off for holidays, or to take a day off if she wanted to rest, but from here on out if she didn’t work she didn’t get paid. And then I pointed out the banana cake and sweet roll intended for her break, rounded up the kids, and headed to town.

I felt okay about the exchange. Not completely okay, but okay enough.

I loved getting all your responses. There was such a range of approaches and beliefs, and as I pondered each suggestion, I began to get a clearer sense of why this is such a sticking point for me.

These are the two voices I had warring in my head:

1. generosity is Jesus mandated so JUST DO IT.
2. there is more to the picture; be cautious, be careful, because exploitation, both being exploited and exploiting, does no one any good.

All my life, the importance of generously helping the less fortunate was drilled into me. But then I came to Central America and began to understand that “giving freely,” as we in North America think of doing so, isn’t always all that helpful. In fact, it can be harmful, dangerous, and flat-out irresponsible. Erring on the side of generosity can actually be an error. Using words like “kindness” and “generosity” as cover-ups doesn’t make that error any righter, nor do they make us less responsible for committing that mistake. With the power to give comes the responsibility to act wisely. This requires that we be informed, that we really, truly, deeply know who we are helping and why and what the goal is. It requires accountability on both sides, time together, and lots of listening. It requires research and contemplation and hard thinking. It’s work.

So I was struggling to reconcile these two voices in my head and then all YOUR voices chimed in and intensified the battle. It felt like both sides were equally right. It felt either/or. I was stumped.

I believe that the two sides can be, need to be, reconciled—but it means that my understanding of both truths has to be expanded and deepened. Being generous might not always feel very generous. Being kind doesn’t necessarily feel rosy and sweet all the time. And on the flip side, it’s a given that I’ll be exploited at times. Plus, I could benefit from learning to let things go and ease up on my justice-oriented soapboxing. The idea is that somehow, with lots of sweat and wrangling, the two sides will eventually arrive at a clumsy sort of peace. Just maybe.

If I’m lucky.

Take, for instance, the concept of parenting—

(Which is a really bad analogy because the notion of parent/child nations is taboo since we’re all supposed to be equals. However, we haven’t exactly treated Guatemala as our equal, and now they tend to think of the US as The Milk Cow, The Money Tree, The Sugar Daddy. So maybe it is a good analogy after all?)

Good parenting doesn’t mean smiley children (or parents) all the time. It means looking at the big picture and helping the kids to do the same. It means towing the line and not always being adored. It means teaching and loving and working your butt off and demanding that they work their butts off, too, sometimes.

It does not mean doling out candy and plastic toys to keep the peace.

Any halfway competent parent knows this, and yet when we think of helping poor people, our gut reaction is to do just that.

The more I spend time in Guatemala (or Nicaragua, or working in the foster care system, or involving myself in church politics or soup kitchens), the more I start to understand the complexity of the issues. The lines blur and I lose my footing. I start to understand more than just my side of the picture. Stuff gets messy. However, only then, when the lines blur and the complexities abound, can true helpfulness take place. Funny thing is, true helpfulness often ends up looking a lot different from what I imagined it would look like when I started out.

Which leads me to wonder: how much of a right do I have to involve myself in situations on the other side of the globe? The other side of the country? The other side of my town? Unless I am willing to go there, to be inconvenienced, to pour my time and energy (let’s forget about money for awhile), then maybe I have no business trying to help?


All this talk of helping reminds me of a children’s poem I memorized when I was little. That three out of the four children’s names in the poem corresponded to me and my brothers (we don’t have an Agatha, thank you Mom and Dad), tickled my fancy to no end. It’s the last stanza that keeps running through my head.

Agatha Fry, she made a pie
And Christopher John helped bake it
Christopher John, he mowed the lawn
And Agatha Fry helped rake it

Now, Zachary Zugg took out the rug
And Jennifer Joy helped shake it
Jennifer Joy, she made a toy
And Zachary Zugg helped break it

Some kind of help is the kind of help
That helping’s all about
And some kind of help is the kind of help
We all can do without

-Shel Silverstein


  • ndingli

    When I came home today to my messy house, I wished my lovely Nepali maid had been there miraculously cleaning up. But a house cleaned by the maid comes with a lot of responsibility – and cleaning my own house is in many ways much easier because there isn't someone in my home every day reminding me of how much I take for granted and how privileged I am ( no one to comment when I spend as much for a box of cereal as they do feeding their family of five for a week). The time I really erred on the side of generosity, I ended up with SIX people working in my house. I just couldn't say no-to the cousin, or brother, or friend who also needed work/whose child was in the hospital/who was a teenager raising three siblings. But it was a mess – worse because it was MCC"s money, not my own to choose to spend. I never found an answer I felt sure was the right one – I think because the poverty – especially in Burundi was so absolute – that it was not a matter of whether it would be nicer for the maid if I, for example, paid her child's school fees, but rather the difference between them eating or going to school. Some of the expats felt that it was bad for encourage poor Burundians to depend on white people to give them money, but that always seemed like a very colonialist attitude to me (ie we white people know what is good for you vs you are doing what you need to do to survive in an extremely impoverished situation – as we all would do).

  • KTdid

    Having grown up on the wealthier side of average, I have struggled with these kinds of questions most of my life
    (and that's without living in another country).


  • jenny_o

    I think you are doing the right – although difficult – thing: thinking this dilemma through, and not just choosing an unexamined mantra ("give, no matter what") or a hard-and-fast position ("never give if others don't give in this situation"). Kudos to you for not taking the easy way. You WILL find a balance that satisfies you – because you are looking for it.

  • Aili

    I know I'm too late to be helpful, but I wanted to tell you that I sort of know how you're feeling. I remember when JC and I went to Costa Rica (just for a vacation). We had saved for a year to afford our plane tickets and bottom-of-the-line hostels, and we had the mildly disconcerting feeling that we were being had, in pretty much every financial interaction. We adored many of the people we met there, but we were never quite sure if they were being sweet to us because they thought that we had piles of money or because they genuinely liked us. We also felt deep conflict about how much we could or should be bothered by people's motives…

  • Jill

    Thank you for writing your thoughts down through this process. Even if thinking through everything is an ongoing, messy process, it's so helpful to read your words. That question of unbridled generosity vs. choosing to acknowledge that your actions have varied effects is so classic and so…crazy difficult.

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