Gratitude and Generosity
Updated: Jan 11
You can get used to living far away from the country where you were born. Strange things become normal. But today, Thanksgiving Day, I will think of all of you and be a bit lonesome.
Thanksgiving is not celebrated in Haiti, but my husband says I need to at least make the food, because traditions are important. He even offered to try to throw a party with his family, but I declined. Times aren’t that great for anyone, and they shouldn’t be burdened with extra parties. We were invited to the big shing-ding in Oriani, but it would be stupid to undertake that trip right now.
I bought a pumpkin in the market on Saturday made a big pot of Soup Joumou for Sunday lunch. Haitian pumpkin soup is a symbol of independence. Like most slave owners, the French found ways of oppressing the Haitian people mentally, making them feel like they had no value. The law was that no Haitian could eat Soup Joumou. But on January 1, 1804, Haiti declared independence, sending out the news, “You are free! Everyone can eat soup joumou now!” My husband felt very free to eat a lot of soup – a pot large enough to feed a family was cleaned out in several hours!
For American Thanksgiving, we’ll have Haitian fried chicken legs with mashed potatoes and gravy, cornbread dressing, and beet salad. Haitian meat makes the best gravy ever! And we’ll finish it off with pumpkin dessert and coffee and count our blessings just like you.
I've been thinking about how the attitude of gratitude doesn’t depend on your situation. It’s just a choice. Right now, I’m probably grateful for different things than you – like a few gallons of diesel for the car, the black plastic bag of potatoes and limes my mom-in-law slipped me at church, and a BBQ chicken pizza with one slice of bacon, a scant sprinkle of cheddar cheese, and a drizzle of real Ranch dressing. Maybe these things seem too simple to you to be called blessings.
But does that mean I am a more thankful person than you? Probably not.
There are many things that I am not thankful for.
Like spaghetti. It’s my husband’s breakfast of choice, and I have eaten so much of it that one more greasy, ketchup-y bite seems like too much. But my neighbor would be extremely grateful if I took her a kettle of spaghetti some morning. Last time we went to see them she said she had been crying because she was hungry.
The neighbors cheer when the power comes on in the evening, “YO BAY KOURAN!” They gave electricity! I don’t even notice because we have solar power and my lights are on already. I don’t know what it’s like to round up every phone in the house and charge them during a church service when the generator is running.
The other day, the neighborhood pump broke, and Zèzè strung a garden hose out the gate and turned on the water pump so that people could fill their buckets. They smiled and said big “thank-you’s.” But what was a blessing to them would have been a hardship to me – I turn a knob and have water straight into my sink instead of dipping it out of a bucket carried clear from the neighbor’s well.
I know that if I would move back to USA, hot showers would be an amazing luxury - for maybe a month. Then they would just be normal again. That’s the way it is with so many of God’s blessings. They become normal, and human nature is geared to only notice and be thankful for the “special things.”
Another phenomenon is that “a big fish in a little pond” is usually happier than “a little fish in a big pond.” 6orth America is the ultimate “big pond,” and we tend to be blind to many of our advantages. Many things that I didn’t notice because in USA I was just one of the many “little fish” become so obvious now where I have it so much better than most of those around me.
It’s easier to be thankful for BBQ pizza and cold water from the fridge when you have a little girl in your kitchen saying, “That’s good cold water!” and licking the last of the homemade BBQ sauce out of the bowl. She says, “Do you think your husband will eat the whole pizza?” and I leave her in suspense to admire it until he wakes up from his nap before I give her a piece. By the way, she totally approves of Ranch dressing on a cucumber.
I believe gratitude affects how generous we are with others. Right now I am surrounded by opportunities to help people. It’s so overwhelming and we never feel like we can do as much as should. But in some ways, it’s also easier. I’ve been there in North America too, at the family Thanksgiving celebration and then at the mall on Black Friday. It seems like everyone already has everything, and your only concern is to dodge the Salvation Army bell ringer if you don’t have any spare change with you.
If you are like me, you may have lingering doubts, “Am I living a selfish life?” But what is there to do? You can’t charge your neighbor’s phones when there is no electricity, babysit little girls and make them happy with Dr. Seuss books, extra-cold water, and a slice of pizza. You can’t fill your car to capacity on the way to church by picking up brothers and sisters you meet alongside the road. You are never asked to loan your car to someone with a medical emergency, and heaven forbid that you would give the last $10 in the house to someone who knocks on the gate with a “situation.” That would be unheard of!
My friend said one time, “Many people have never seen a child’s eyes light up from just a simple box of crayons. Their children just expect them. There’s no magic!” It’s hard to see needs all around you and feel like you can’t do anything. But I think I would choose that over blindness. God has a high standard for people who have been given much, and I'm thankful that right now I'm living in a place where I can really experience how giving works.
Because being generous is a huge commitment.
It takes prayers for God to open your eyes. You have to involve yourselves in others' lives enough to see their needs. We all agree it’s not wise to just throw your money at the big-name charity that sends out flyers with haunting pictures of orphans. Many times, those flyers trigger emotional giving – giving in a superficial way to make yourself feel better without really understanding the situation. You don’t know if your money is going to help someone in need, to print more flyers, or to pay the salary of some CEO. True generosity takes being willing to see another's pain and not distance yourself from it – to see a stranger, friend, or someone in your church family as worthy of your help, as a precious child of God.
Wealth brings independence, and independence allows us to turn a blind eye to others. In Haiti, being independent is not a possibility. Survival depends on everyone sharing what you have, and generosity is a common topic of discussion. A favorite Bible verse in Kreyol is, “Fè byen san gade deye.” Do good without looking back. Sometimes I have made a commitment to help someone and later my husband has chided me, “You’re ruining your gift by complaining about your schedule. If you don’t want to do it, say no in the first place. Don’t be a hypocrite.”
Do you need to deeply analyze the person’s situation before you give? My Sunday school sisters say no, not if you’re following the Holy Spirit. One of them was impressed to follow a stranger on the street and give them some money. She found out the lady was in the hospital with her children. In Haitian hospitals, you are responsible to take food to sick family members, and she was on her way to see her children with no money to buy food for them. If you give someone a dress, don’t watch to see how often they wear it. If you have some ground corn and feel like sharing, don’t try to remember if the person prefers rice.
Can you give too much? My husbands says, “Not if you’re really giving without looking back. If you have $50 and give $10 but regret it later, it was too much. But if you are full of faith, you can give the whole $50. God will send someone to bless you in return and it will not be too much.”
Many Haitians have stories about giving someone the last money they had in the house. We’ve done it and found about the same amount or a bit more stashed in the console of our car later. My mom-in-law gave away her last food, only to be visited a few hours later by a charity handing out rice, flour, oil, and other staples by the pound. Someone told a story in church of giving $50 Haitian (worth about $2.50 USD right now) so someone who asked for help. At work, someone unexpectedly slipped them an envelope with $50 USD! I’ve began to think that God appreciates and blesses this giving chain. It draws people closer together than if we all just took care of ourselves.
But it takes a lot of faith. And I can’t say that I’ve yet mastered doing good without looking back.
I’ll leave you with the Haitian folktale we heard in church last Sunday.
Ti Malice and Bouki
Ti Malice and Bouki each had a cow. One day, Ti Malice’s cow got caught on its rope, and hung itself. There was nothing to do but butcher it. He was a generous soul and sent a big piece of meat to each of his neighbors and friends.
All that year, whenever anyone in the area killed a goat, a pig, or a cow, they thought of Ti Malice. He got huge chunks of meat every week.
One day he was talking to his friend Bouki and said, “Wow Bouki! Can you believe I killed that one cow almost a year ago and I’ve meat to eat this whole time?” But he didn’t tell Bouki his secret.
Bouki went home and butchered his cow right away. He put all the meat in a big drum and feasted for two days. But the third day, the meat had an awful smell and he saw worms crawling around. He was horrified and went straight to Ti Malice, “You told me you ate meat from your cow for a whole year!” he said.
Then Ti Malice told his friend that it was because of sharing that he had been feasting so well, but it was too late. All that was left for greedy Bouki was a drum full of rotten meat.
Happy Thanksgiving my friends. Do good without looking back!
And just in case you didn't hear about it, our Haiti cookbook is finished and for sale! Click the link above!