What could you live without?

I don't remember where I came across this article, but I liked it enough to save it to post it on my blog. This article also brings back to memory a discussion I had with a friend sometime back about the kind of car I'd like to buy, as and when I'll buy it. I mentioned that I would prefer a small utilitarian car which has high mileage and low maintenance cost. My friend preferred something luxurious and big, which would enhance her status in some way. Both of us had our own school of thought, and I am not entitled to judge one as wrong and other as correct line of thought.

However, I do feel that a little thoughtfulness goes a long way in adding value not only for yourself, but also for society at large. With growing concerns about global warming, limited resource availability etc, doesn't it make sense for all of us to use our resources more thoughtfully?

So far, I have met very few people who agree to my line of thought in toto. Few years back even I used to dream about big, expensive cars, (as far as cars are concerned, I still do, but at the same time, now I know better), big lavish house and fancy gadgets. But over time my thought process has undergone major changes, and now I look more for value and utility and less for the brand value etc. 

Anyways, I digress. Here is the article: (please note that in the following article where ever it says "I", it means the original author and not me)

It all began with a stop at a red light. Kevin Salwen, a writer and entrepreneur in Atlanta, was driving his 14-year-old daughter, Hannah, back from a sleepover in 2006. While waiting at a traffic light, they saw a black Mercedes coupe on one side and a homeless man begging for food on the other. 

“Dad, if that man had a less nice car, that man there could have a meal,” Hannah protested. The light changed and they drove on, but Hannah was too young to be reasonable. She pestered her parents about inequity, insisting that she wanted to do something. 

“What do you want to do?” her mom responded. “Sell our house?” Warning! Never suggest a grand gesture to an idealistic teenager. Hannah seized upon the idea of selling the luxurious family home and donating half the proceeds to charity, while using the other half to buy a more modest replacement home. 

Eventually, that’s what the family did. The project, crazy, impetuous and utterly inspiring, is chronicled in a book by father and daughter scheduled to be published next month: “The Power of Half.” It’s a book that, frankly, I’d be nervous about leaving around where my own teenage kids might find it. An impressionable child reads this, and the next thing you know your whole family is out on the street. 

At a time of enormous needs in Haiti and elsewhere, when so many Americans are trying to help Haitians by sending everything from text messages to shoes, the Salwens offer an example of a family that came together to make a difference, for themselves as much as the people they were trying to help. 

In a column a week ago, I described neurological evidence from brain scans that altruism lights up parts of the brain normally associated with more primal gratifications such as food and sex. The Salwens’ experience confirms the selfish pleasures of selflessness. 

Salwen and his wife, Joan, had always assumed that their kids would be better off in a bigger house. But after they downsized, there was much less space to retreat to, so the family members spent more time around each other. A smaller house unexpectedly turned out to be a more family-friendly house. 

“We essentially traded stuff for togetherness and connectedness,” Salwen told me, adding, “I can’t figure out why everybody wouldn’t want that deal.” 

One reason for that togetherness was the complex process of deciding how to spend the money. The Salwens researched causes and charities, finally settling on the Hunger Project, a New York City-based international development organization that has a good record of tackling global poverty. 

The Salwens pledged $800,000 to sponsor health, micro financing, food and other programs for about 40 villages in Ghana. They traveled to Ghana with a Hunger Project executive, John Coonrod, who is an inspiration in his own right. Over the years, he and his wife donated so much back from their modest aid-worker salaries that they were among the top Hunger Project donors in New York. 

The Salwens’ initiative hasn’t gone entirely smoothly. Hannah promptly won over her parents, but her younger brother, Joe, was (reassuringly) a red-blooded American boy to whom it wasn’t intuitively obvious that life would improve by moving into a smaller house and giving money to poor people. Outvoted and outmaneuvered, Joe gamely went along. 

The Salwens also are troubled that some people are reacting negatively to their project, seeing them as sanctimonious showoffs. Or that people are protesting giving to Ghana when there are so many needy Americans. Still, they have inspired some converts. The people who sold the Salwens their new home were so impressed that they committed $100,000 to the project. And one of Hannah’s closest friends, Blaise, pledged half of her baby-sitting savings to an environmental charity. 

In writing the book, the Salwens say, the aim wasn’t actually to get people to sell their houses. They realize that few people are quite that nutty. Rather, the aim was to encourage people to step off the treadmill of accumulation, to define themselves by what they give as well as by what they possess. 

“No one expects anyone to sell a house,” said Hannah, now a high school junior who hopes to become a nurse. “That’s kind of a ridiculous thing to do. For us, the house was just something we could live without. It was too big for us. Everyone has too much of something, whether it’s time, talent or treasure. Everyone does have their own half, you just have to find it.” 

As for Kevin Salwen, he’s delighted by what has unfolded since that encounter at the red light. “This is the most self-interested thing we have ever done,” he said. “I’m thrilled that we can help others. I’m blown away by how much it has helped us.”


pearl said…
A very thoughtful article..specially the last part which talks about finding 'your own half'..the article reminds me of 'The Story of Stuff' which again talks about how people are just going about purchasing new things (whether it be gadgets, clothes or just anything) whether they need it or not. In most cases the purchase in inspired by the thought to be in 'fashion' and the 'latest'. Leaving aside the large savings in form of houses, I feel each of us can do our own bit. By cutting down our spending on things we do not need, we can actually save a lot over time..or for that matter spending an hour or two over the weekend for a noble cause can indeed make a lot of difference..People just talk about what the government or other related organizations should/shouldnot do, but if we all start doing our small bit, the need for that discussion wont be there..
Rohit said…
Nice article. But I disagree with it. Completely.

Here's my rationale.

What the article talks about is a reduction in spending and an increase in charitable donations. This has a two-pronged effect.
Reduction in spending: This leads to an increase in poverty. Every time you buy latest clothes, you are feeding an economic cycle that contains not just the garment manufacturer, but a lot of individuals including laborers in the cloth industry, textile mill workers, mill equipment manufacturers, dye manufacturers and numerous others. These all would lose their jobs if you stop buying the latest clothes. Is this what you want?
Increase in charitable donations: This would lead to a reduction in incentive to work. And when people stop working, progress halts. So, If everybody starts donating to charitable causes, no one will work. Also, equally important, if we don't earn money, how else are we going to find money to donate?

I am not saying that it's useless to support the unprivileged. What I am saying that instead of spoon-feeding them, they should be provided opportunity to work and earn on their own. After all, the socio-economic disparity is due to two reasons - lack of opportunity and lack of will. Lack of will is internal and cannot be controlled by an outsider. However, lack of opportunity can. If socio-economic disparity still exists, then the society deserves it.

At a traffic light, I would rather buy a magazine I would never read or get my car washed or buy that tissue paper than give alms.

Comments are welcome.
Psychobabble said…
well as for altruism.... i work in an ngo dear.
pearl said…
@Rohit...when we talk about supporting the poor through donation to trust, or spending less on unnecessary items, the rationale is not to spoon feed the poor, it is to support them. The trusts or other organizations in turn help the poor make a living. You are talking about helping them make a living, but to do that they require some basic capital and training, which we can provide though savings both in form of time and money.

As far as point on cutting down on purchases is concerned, I agree to some extent that our purchase fuel the economic cycle, but that doesnot justify expenditure on unwanted things without proper disposal of used stuff. A number of initiatives are being carried out for recycling and reuse of stuff..without that it might fuel the economy to some extent but the harm it causes to the environment as a whole far exceeds the benefits..
Amritha Menon said…
i liked that bit about the family getting better connected due to shrinking of space! Probably the initiative motivated them as well, to interact more. Isn't it true that people living in large houses sometimes could miss each other though unplanned? I'm sure they got a chance to evolve into better people as well, due to this activity. Highly idealistic and almost surreal I must say!
But I'm not supportive of the charity bit! Often ready thoughtless charity spoils.
Psychobabble said…
Well the charity given is not thoughtless, it is well thought about, it aims at making the T.A. self sufficient.
Divya said…
A very good post, Gagan!

@Rohit -(a) You are right! Giving them opportunities & building a level playing field is the way to remove economic disparity. Charity is anything - money, time, energy, effort - that helps in bringing about the change. It's not spoonfeeding. (b) Reduced economy activity happens when we bring down our spending and tuck away the extra pennies. The article talks about channeling those very pennies to improve the lives of less fortunate people. When all of them spend that money to sustain and support themselves, the boost to local economy will be much more than when you buy a Gucci watch with it.
Gagan said…
@ Pearl: Thanks for the appreciation. Yes, one might not do something as drastic as selling one's house and donating proceeds, but one can surely introspect and minimize unnecessary expenditure. The discussion continues :)

@ Rohit: I understand where you are coming from. Others have already made clear what I am trying to say through my post. In addition, I recommend you read a book called 'No Logo' and watch 'Story of Stuff'. These would give you some new perspective on world economics.

@ Psychobabble: Thats great :)

@ Amritha: Yes, a close knit family is among the best things that can happen to one. And no one is advocating thoughtless charity, but no harm in extending a meaningful helping hand to those who need it.

@ Divya: Thanks for the appreciation :) and points well made. Thanks for the meaningful response to Rohit's comment.

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