So Much to Be Thankful For!

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend. Gratitude makes sense of our past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.” – Melody Beattie

When you step down from the bus and out onto the street, they come to you – barefoot women, holding babies, with outstretched hands.

“They are professional beggars,” our guide tells us. “They come only after tourists. Just leave them alone and they will stop pestering you.”

But it is hard to ignore an outstretched hand when the spending money in your pocket could improve, at least temporarily, a life. In my wallet at the moment is twelve hundred dollars’ worth of rupees – as much as the woman in front of me will earn in two years of begging. I am tempted to give it to her. I imagine what she might do with the money. Get some new clothes for herself and her children, buy a bicycle… maybe even buy a goat.

Giving money to beggars in India is less risky than it is in the United States. These people are not crack addicts, alcoholics, or thieves. They are just poor. Any money I might give to them would be put to good use – toward what Jimmy Carter called “basic human needs.”

But our guide is adamant about not giving. “We have places that feed and house these people,” he says. “If you want to give away money, you can write these places a check.”

Corruption and inefficiency in such organizations is rampant, he admits. “What I do,” he says, “is put aside some money. Then, once a year, I buy fruits and vegetables and go into the country and give them away.”

Later that day, we stop at a market and buy ballpoint pens and wrapped candies that we give, not to beggars but to children in the small towns we pass as we drive out of the city to visit old temples and forts. This turns out to be a much better way to exercise the charitable impulses we feel. The candies can’t do any permanent damage. The pens are used at school. No money changes hands.

And the experience is completely delightful. The children, barefoot and ragged, are delighted with our presents. They line up roughly to receive their gifts, thank us happily, and rush off, shouting and laughing.

This won’t improve the difficulty of their lives. They will be one ballpoint pen richer against the lifetime of poverty and hardship that awaits them. But it gives them a momentary experience of joy… and us too. What’s wrong with that?

I think about my own childhood. I was not nearly as poor as these children but I was, by American standards, working-class poor. I grew up wearing hand-me-down clothes given to our family by local charities. And once a year we received Christmas presents from charitable organizations that did that sort of thing. I was embarrassed to live in the shabbiest house on the poorest street in my town. And I was thrilled to get what charity I got when it came.

But our parents taught us that education and hard work is the way to have a better life, and they practiced what they preached. My father never worked fewer than two jobs, and my mother took care of eight children and worked full-time or part-time as well.

Because I was lucky enough to be born into a large and growing economy and have educated parents, it was much easier for me to achieve a level of wealth that these barefoot children will almost certainly never have. And that is why, when I am here in India surrounded by so many poor people, I feel compelled to share some of what I have. It seems so justifiable.

And yet, in the long run, that wouldn’t do any good. So what will?

I’ve been asking myself the same question when I go to Nicaragua, where I’ve been involved with a real estate project for about eight years. The development we are doing has given jobs to hundreds of poor people and has encouraged other projects that are employing hundreds more. But on a personal level, I want to do more. So I’ve set up about a half-dozen programs that are working reasonably well.

Once a year, I buy schoolbooks and uniforms for children whose families are too poor to provide them. Without those things, they are not allowed to attend public school. I have also established a loan program for employees of the businesses I’m in down there. This allows them to put doors and windows in the brick-and-stick shacks they use for houses. Or to put down cement floors. Or to dig wells.

I was going to build a technical school for three of the local hamlets. But when I spoke with the town leaders about helping me supervise the project, they wanted me to give the money directly to them so they could use it to buy amenities for their churches. Not something I could ethically agree to.

So now I’m thinking about something more ambitious – about building a small town that has electricity and running water. But there are hundreds of political and bureaucratic problems with doing that. And in the end, I’m not sure it would provide any long-term benefits to the local population. What they most need is more jobs – and I can’t give them that.

“Making money isn’t the problem,” Bill Bonner once wrote in The Daily Reckoning. “Getting rid of it is.” At the time I read that, I thought, “Words only a rich man could utter.” But Bill is right. Being charitable is a problem. And it’s a problem regardless of how much you have or how much you are giving away.

Human beings are intelligent creatures. We are designed to emulate behavior that sustains life with the least amount of effort and stress. If I can earn my living easily by begging for money, why would I work for it? If the only skill I know is begging, how can I fend for myself when my patrons disappear?

Organizations like Habitat for Humanity insist that the beneficiaries of the houses they build spend time in the building process so they can feel personal pride in the home they eventually inherit. That’s the sort of process I need to establish if I ever figure out a way to get through the red tape and build a town in Nicaragua.

But I am in India now, and I am thinking about the poverty here. The beggars that come up to me are not averse to working because of laziness or addiction. There is just no work for them in the Indian economy. So they are doing what they can do: asking tourists for rupees so they can buy food and clothing and pay what little they have to pay for rent.

There is no starvation in India nowadays, our guide tells us. But it wasn’t always so. In the early 1940s, there was massive starvation in Bangladesh. In the early 1960s, the state of Bihar experienced extreme famine. And then, in 1973 and 1974, Bangladesh again went through a nationwide famine.

And look at what’s happening in the world today:

  • Famine has hit Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Somalia, and Zimbabwe.
  • Severe drought and military conflicts are starving millions in Kenya, Somalia, Djibouti, and Ethiopia.
  • The Darfur Conflict has left an estimated 450,000 people dead.
  • Violence rocks Israel, Palestine, Chechnya, Iraq, Kashmir, Peru, Algeria, Liberia, and Afghanistan.

When you think about these terrible things, you can’t help but feel grateful that you are not suffering from them. And you want to help.

That’s something to think about today, on Thanksgiving: how grateful you should be and how you can help others who don’t have the good things you have in your life.

Take some time to be thankful for your blessings. Find a quiet spot where you can sit down and make a mental list of everything you have that so many poor people around the world don’t. The good fortune, for example, to be…

  • Well educated
  • Free to attain more education
  • Living in an economy where jobs are plentiful
  • Able to start a business – any business you like
  • Plugged into the Internet where self-improvement opportunities are endless

And then spend a few more minutes thinking about the blessings you share with those poor people, such as…

  • The freedom to try to improve your life, despite your handicaps
  • And the ability to be happy with what you have, whatever that is

For that is, ultimately, the feeling I am taking away from my first experience of India – that, despite the poverty, this country is full of fundamentally happy people. You see it everywhere you go – in the shops, in the hotels, in the streets, and in the rural areas. Smiling faces. Children playing. Families spending time together and enjoying life.

So spend some quiet time today considering your blessings and thinking about how you can usefully help those who don’t have what you have. And spend the rest of your day celebrating your blessings – eating, drinking, and being thoroughly happy… at least for today.

[Ed. Note: Get Michael Masterson’s insights into becoming successful in your business and personal life, achieving financial independence, and accomplishing all your goals on his new website. You’ll find updates on all of Michael’s books, news on upcoming ETR events, Michael’s blog, and room to send in your comments and questions. Check it out today.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]