I have a feeling that I’m not the only one who’s so glad the election season is over! Wow! What an ugly process this time around – as some politicians and news commentators said, this is the nastiest campaign season they’ve seen in decades. How sad that the very people who are suppose to put their own interests aside in order to hear and represent the people instead consider only their own party politics regardless of what’s best for the constituents.
One of the big questions among partisan lawmakers and politicians now is, should we let the Bush-era tax cuts die out at the end of 2010 or should we renew them, especially for the middle class? If the tax cuts are continued, the big political debate is whether the tax cuts for the rich should be ended or continued. I say, let the rich keep their tax cuts but on one condition. Here it is.
A heartwarming story was reported in the New York Times last Sunday, “Kindness of a Stranger That Still Resonates.” It seems that a suitcase full of letters was delivered in 2008 to a man named Ted Gup, who is an investigative journalist formerly with The Washington Post. The letters were all addressed to a Mr. B. Virdot. The letters were all Thank You’s to B. Virdot for money given to the letter-writers. Apparently, an advertisement appeared Dec. 17, 1933 (during the height of the Great Depression), in The Canton Repository newspaper. “A donor using the pseudonym B. Virdot offered modest cash gifts to families in need. His only request: Letters from the struggling people describing their financial troubles and how they hoped to spend the money. The donor promised to keep letter writers’ identities secret ‘until the very end.'” And the secret donor, it turns out, was Ted Gup’s grandfather, Samuel Stone of Canton, Ohio, who had himself escaped poverty and persecution as a Jew in Romania to build a successful chain of clothing stores in the United States.
Ted Gup read through the 150 letters in that suitcase, tears streaming down his face from the poignant expressions of gratitude from these desperate people and families during such a desperate time in history, a time very much reflected in today’s economic disasters for so many. He was so moved he decided to write a book about these letters called “A Secret Gift.” And last week, 400 people gathered in the famed 84-year-old Palace Theater in Canton, Ohio, at a reunion for families of B. Virdot’s recipients planned by Ted Gup.
Helen Palm, 90 years old, the only living recipient of those anonymous checks, sat in her wheelchair on the stage of the Palace Theater and read her letter for help, the one she wrote 77 years ago in the depths of the Great Depression to an anonymous stranger who called himself B. Virdot. “I am writing this because I need clothing … And sometimes we run out of food.”
It was a profound and powerful evening for all those who attended and for the rest of the city who heard the story. Honoring the memory of a man who during desperate times chose to give from his wealth to those who were fighting to survive.
“For the older people [that evening], it was a chance to remember the hard times. For relatives of the letter writers, it was a time to hear how the small gifts, in the bleakest winter of the Depression, meant more than money. They buoyed the spirits of an entire city that is beginning to lose hope.”
So I say, let the tax cuts for the wealthy in this country be extended … on one condition: that every one of those in the upper tax brackets do what Samuel Stone did and give from their wealth to those who are struggling to survive in our cities all over this country. B. Virdot lived out a model for generosity that could sure be used these days!
The growing divide in this country between the rich and the poor, along with the diminishing ranks of those in the middle, is at an all time high. In a sobering column last Saturday called “Our Banana Republic,” Nicholas Kristoff stated that “The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976. The United States now arguably has a more unequal distribution of wealth than traditional banana republics like Nicaragua, Venezuela and Guyana. C.E.O.’s of the largest American companies earned an average of 42 times as much as the average worker in 1980, but 531 times as much in 2001. Perhaps the most astounding statistic is this: From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent.”
This is a tragic state of reality! If there’s ever a time we need the moral courage and determination of B. Virdot it’s in these desperate times. Imagine what could happen if this 1 per cent in our country followed Samuel Stone’s model of generosity. It might actually inspire the rest of us to follow suit. And then imagine where we could be in this depressed and hope-chasing economy. How many anonymous checks or gift cards or cash gifts could be given away in every city in America out of the wealth that still exists in this country? How many people – men, women, and children – could be given hope and love for this upcoming Holiday Season?
This value of the “haves” giving to the “have-nots” is a part of the core message of every enduring spiritual tradition. Here are some representative admonitions:
From the Jewish Scriptures: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:9-10)
From the Muslim Scriptures: “Let not those among you who are endued with grace and amplitude of means resolve by oath against helping their kinsmen, those in want, and those who have left their homes in Allah’s cause.” (Qur’an 24:22)
From the Christian Scriptures: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)
All sacred scriptures connect spirituality with how personal wealth is used.
Now I obviously realize that the Government can’t do something like extend tax cuts to some people with conditions that they give to the needy. But I have to admit it’s getting wearisome hearing the endless debate over our economy with the primary determining issue being, “What’s in it for me?” I too want to have enough to live on. I too want meaningful work and employment with commensurate remuneration. I want to be paid what I’m worth. I too want to survive in this difficult recession. But believe me, most of us have more than we think. Experts remind us, for example, that if we have the luxury right now of reading this blog in the format we’re reading it in (e.g. computer, internet, hard copy even), we’re in the top 5% of the world’s wealthiest population.
As all the enduring spiritual traditions remind us, we are being called to rise to a higher level of life value than personal survival. We are being called to be willing to think of others beyond simply thinking of ourselves. We are being challenged to give of what we do have to help those who have less.
I don’t know the extent of B. Virdot’s (Samuel Stone) personal weath in the 1930s from his successful chain of clothing stores. But I do know that what he did during those years for the 150 needy families in Canton, Ohio obviously reverberated down through the succeeding generations into the current climate of devastation from today’s recession in that same city. When the 400 people gathered in the old Palace Theatre several weeks ago to honor B. Virdot and his acts of kindness, they all talked about how Mr. Stone’s example of generosity resonates today.
“I think there’s a message here that people in Canton know how to get through the hard times by pulling together,” Mr. Gup said.
Days before Christmas 1933, with Mr. Stone’s gift in hand, Edith May took her 4-year-old daughter Felice to a five-and-dime store and bought her a wooden horse. Seventy-seven years later, Felice May Dunn owns two farms and 17 Welsh ponies. “In my life it made a big difference,” Ms. Dunn, 80, recalled. “It was my favorite toy.”
I wonder how that wooden horse gift has impacted her response to life these days?