Generosity: Norms and Policy

Three things happened last weekend that made me think of how and when people help other people.  

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The first was a small act of helping:  My family was driving to a cross-country ski weekend in heavy snowfall.  I have to say that I was initially against leaving town.  Since having children, I feel less and less like taking risks in any form of transportation and I was worried about the conditions.  It had been snowing for hours.  With front snow tires on, and the other drivers leaving a very respectful distance between the cars, we made it up through the Kettle Moraine region of Wisconsin, on highway 151.  As we wound our way toward the camp where we would be one of 50 or 60 out to enjoy each other and the ski trails, we saw a car in the ditch.  The driver was spinning her wheels unproductively.  One car had already stopped to help.  We pulled over too.  And then we were five cars.  So all told, seven hearty Wisconsinites (including my husband and me, Wisconsinites since August) heaved her car back on the road.  Everyone chuckled and wished each other well.  The driver thanked us all, and we were on our way. 

The temperature was 7°F (that’s -14°C) and I was impressed by the good will.  

We arrived at Camp Vista, which is a grouping of large cabins around a lodge looking over a small lake – very beautiful – and began to introduce ourselves around to the members of the group.  They have been reserving the same camp on the same weekend for the last 24 years (we had been invited along by friends in Madison).  That night over an authentic Friday night Fish Fry (where authentic=awesome), and later around a fire in the lodge, we learned that the group was largely composed of individuals who had worked in the Peace Corps.  They had volunteered in Niger, Sierra Leone, the Dominican Republic, and Nepal.  They had built solar panels, taught school, worked on water supplies and dug wells.  The 25 year-old son of a former Peace Corps volunteer had recently returned from two weeks in Tanzania where he and his “Engineers without Borders” buddies had been designing and constructing pipelines for fresh water in a boarding school for 600 children.  He was undeniably the son of his Peace Corps father.


Despite the amazing weather – bracing cold, dry and sunny – and thus fantastic cross-country skiing, we still returned to Madison late the next day, leaving our youngest to enjoy the rest of the weekend with his friend and their family.  We had tickets to attend Lily’s Luau, a fundraising event for Lily’s Fund. Our friends Anne and Dave established Liliy’s Fund in 2007 at the University of Wisconsin Foundation through an initial gift, in honor of their daughter, Lily, who has epilepsy. The fund supports research on this disease. Last night we heard this: “Did you know that epilepsy affects more people than multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and Parkinson’s Disease COMBINED…. and funding is less than half of any one of them? Did you know that one-third of people with epilepsy cannot control their seizures with medicine? And did you know that one in 26 people will develop epilepsy during their lifetime?” 

And we saw this video

There was a silent auction of donations, and a live auction during which something like 500 people opened their wallets to help unknown others with epilepsy, who might be of a different race, religion or creed.  There was luau food and music, and we danced with Lily, who is a friend and a neighbor. 
And on the way home I remembered something: Americans, as members of the most notable “individualistic culture,” are supposed to be ungenerous and singularly self-involved.  This is manifested in our laws and policies, both federal and state-level: too many people are homeless, lacking health insurance, and illiterate.  How can we let this be so?  We let it be so -- according to people's clichés in many, many countries -- because we are individualistic; ungenerous and singularly self-involved.

There is no question about some basic facts of the policies.  But there is also no question that the US does not have the same foundational motives and does not have the same social challenges as the developed countries with which it is most often compared.  Those other countries’ policies sound more generous.  But, when the diversity of the population and the nature and extent of immigration in other countries starts to approach that of the United States, then the most vocal of the indignant will find out how generous and “collectivist” their peoples really are.   It could be that policy is not a straightforward reflection of the nature of the persons who design it.

In the meantime, Anne and Dave show me daily that in spite of labels and clichés, I live among pillars of generosity and collectivism.


Paula NiedenthalComment