The will to give

A lot of people may have all the money in the world, and still feel they don’t have enough. Every asset they acquire serves as a prod to gain more. They become slaves to their possessions. Others have very much less in comparison, and yet they think it’s more than what they need. Their wants do not grow with their wealth. Their cup quickly overflows; they can’t stop giving. They remain in control of what they have and what they want to be. All this makes one ponder what it means to be wealthy.

“Money serves its purpose only when it is used for those who need it,” says Chen Shu-chu, one of the 2012 Ramon Magsaysay Awardees. In the last 20 years, she has quietly given away more than NT$10 million (US$333,000) of her own earnings from selling vegetables in a market stall in Taiwan. The beneficiaries of her generosity include a Buddhist monastery that wanted to set up a children’s school; a Christian organization that rescues children in dire need of food, shelter, clothing, and education; a Red Cross fund that helps victims of disasters and other emergencies; the primary school she attended as a child, to set up a fully equipped library; and an emergency fund explicitly meant for students who are in need of money for tuition or other expenses when their parents fall sick or cannot find work.

Chen finds nothing extraordinary about giving away money to help those who need it. The attention she has received bothers her. Photographers and reporters have flocked to her store since Time Magazine plucked her from anonymity in 2010 and listed her in the “heroes category” of the “100 Most Influential People in the World.” She continues to sell vegetables in the market, and between posing for pictures and answering questions, she says she has little time left to attend to her customers.

Indeed, the money she has donated to charity is a pittance compared to the billions of dollars that people like Bill and Melinda Gates or Warren Buffett have given to education and to the world’s poor. Yet, in 2010, Forbes magazine, which compiles an annual list of the richest people in the world, named Chen one of the “48 Heroes of Philanthropy.” Asia certainly has countless philanthropists who have given a lot more in absolute terms than Chen. Thus, by this measure alone, she would be far from outstanding.

The Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation itself does not give awards for simple philanthropy. In the more than 50 years that it has given Asia’s equivalent of the Nobel Prize, what it recognizes is “greatness of spirit” in the service of others. This quality is usually found among people who not only manage to rise from adversity, but also come away from their personal struggles, not with bitterness or cynicism, but with a strong sense of social solidarity. In that regard, their lives not only serve as shining examples worthy of emulation, but, as important, they lift our spirits and quietly interrogate our own values.

In one of my earliest columns, I wrote about 87-year-old Oseola McCarty of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, who found herself in the news for donating her lifetime savings of $150,000 to the University of Southern Mississippi to fund scholarships for black students. Herself a black woman, Oseola did not get the chance to go to school. She never married, and she sustained herself by washing clothes for other people.  Yet, so simple were her needs that she was able to save a good part of her wages in the bank. The money she turned over to the school was money she saved over 60 years working as a washerwoman. She said that if young black girls today could get an education, they would have a better chance at life than those of her own generation.

Chen Shu-chu reminds me very much of Oseola. Now in her early 60s, Chen did not go beyond Grade 6.  At 13, she stopped going to school when her mother fell ill. All their lives, her parents struggled to make both ends meet, and health emergencies always left them drained financially. She saw her father begging their neighbors for help to pay for hospital treatment and medical expenses. But her mother could not be saved; thus, as the eldest daughter in a brood of eight, she had to take over her mother’s chores at home and at the market stall. A few years later, one of her brothers contracted a chronic illness. The school she used to attend raised money to help the family. Although the boy eventually died, the generosity that her former teachers and classmates showed in their hour of need remained with her.

Through sheer frugality and hard work, after her father died, Chen managed to earn enough from their tiny vegetable stall to send all her siblings to school. She stayed single and never changed her lifestyle, waking up at 2:30 in the morning to get her supply of vegetables from the wholesale market, and staying till 9 p.m. to serve her customers. She still sleeps on the floor, a habit she says she acquired when she was young so she would have no problem getting up, and works 18 hours a day. People have wondered how a mere vegetable vendor can have so much money to give away. “Spend only what you need,” Chen says cheerfully, “and you’ll be able to save up a lot of money.”

She could have spent her savings to treat herself to a well-deserved holiday, and no one would begrudge her. Or, she could have expanded her vegetable stall and ventured into other businesses. But Chen prefers to share her earnings with those in need. “I accumulate virtue instead of wealth,” she replies when asked why she gives away her hard-earned money. “Life is short, and you don’t know when you will die.”

Chen Shu-chu’s life is an antidote to the avarice and insatiable consumerism of our time. The will to give, so strong in her, is what makes her an extraordinary human being.

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