Bill Moyers on a physician and activist who befriended life with her bare hands
In recounting his experience "on both sides of the fence" in philanthropy, veteran journalist Bill Moyers told the story of Rachel Remen when he spoke before a gathering of the Wealth and Giving Forum on October 22, 2005.
By Bill Moyers
It's not easy giving money away. For one thing, when you make a mistake, people are loath to tell you. Unlike investing, where the market delivers quick verdicts on mistakes; or business, where bad decisions cannot go long undetected, the feedback loop in philanthropy rarely turns up irrefutable evidence that you blew one. I have long wished to talk to the great British economist Walter Bagehot, who once wrote that "the most melancholy of human reflection, perhaps, is that on the whole, it is a question whether the benevolence of mankind does more harm than good."
The hardest thing is. the effort to reconcile philanthropy's profound inner tensions. It's a curious thing: Americans worship wealth; just about everybody wants to be rich. But . people who inherit great wealth often suffer an agony as difficult as what afflicts those who struggle with the more common conditions of life. The angst can be exquisite in our culture . because those who suffer from wealth can find almost no sympathy outside their direct circle of family or peers.
This is a deeply contested activity that can even put you in a relationship of psychic toxicity with those you want to help. I am not at all surprised that John D. Rockefeller thought it was harder to give money away than to earn it.
But when you get it right-when you have squared your expectations and your reach and know as only you can know that what you have done matters -it can be sweet.
Rachel Naomi Remen got it right. You may have heard of Rachel. She's a physician, teaches community medicine at the University of California in San Francisco, and co-founded Commonweal, the center for cancer patients in northern California. In
My Grandfather's Blessings
, Rachel writes about how she came into an unexpected legacy of $20,000 on the condition that she give it away in any way she saw best.
Even for so modest an amount of money, she found herself on a steep learning curve, learning that "giving away money can be demanding and even lonely." She had "never before noticed the . groups of people or individuals whose vision, if nurtured, could lead to a better world."
I suppose that I never saw them because I did not think I personally had the means to be of help to them, and so they had nothing to do with me. You might never notice plants struggling to grow around you, either, until some one hands you a full watering can. But I could see them now. They were everywhere.
She was still trying to figure out what to do with the money when one evening she and a friend went out to eat at a local restaurant. At the next table, two men were dining so close she couldn't help overhearing them. One was telling the other about a program he and some of his Spanish-speaking colleagues had been running as volunteers, providing support for poor families who had lost children to illness, accident, or violence.
More than a hundred couples had been helped to preserve marriages torn open by grief and blame and to parent their remaining children. But now many of the city's hospitals had merged or gone out of business or been taken over by organizations that had no interest in supporting such a program. For lack of money, it was about to close.
Really Reaching Out
Rachel was eavesdropping shamelessly. She heard the second fellow ask the first one-whose name was Steve-"How much do you need to keep things going?" Steve answered sadly, "A great deal. More than we could ever raise." "How much?" his friend asked again. "Four thousand dollars," Steve replied. At this, Rachel Remen reached across the few feet separating the tables, touched the man lightly on the arm, and said: "You got it, Steve." And reaching into her purse for her checkbook, she filled it out on the spot.
Without this admittedly modest opportunity, Rachel says, "I doubt that I would have responded to the conversation at the next table or even heard it. I knew [now] that I had something of value to give [and once I gave it away] an odd thing happened . I still notice the growing edge of things and I still respond to it. I give away my time, my skills, my network of friends, my life experience. You do not need money to be a philanthropist. We all have assets. You can befriend life with your bare hands."
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