Originally published on Medium.

Indigenous children of El Salto Boquete Panama

How do you differentiate selfishness from self-preservation?

I grew up in the United States, where Christmas is a mishmash of many traditions old and new. In my family, we always looked forward to the presents and the food, of course, and even though we weren’t religious, Christmas was a time to honor and celebrate our family.

I’ve spent many Christmases in Panama, but it still never feels quite like home. Cooking during the holidays is my way of curing homesickness. This year I baked a crap load of cookies and cooked enough food for an army.

The problem was that Christmas Eve dinner would only include me and my husband, who are trying to cut down, and the Mother-in-Law, who is allergic to everything and on a very restricted diet. We had a feast, just the three of us, leaving piles of cookies untouched and a metric ton of leftover ham.

On Christmas morning, I decided to walk my dogs to enjoy the blustery weather and process the previous night’s champagne. I’ve been practicing awareness and “living in the now,” and I tried to soak up everything and enjoy my little piece of life as I walked.

My road runs about fifteen kilometers along the edge of a valley and ends at Volcán Barú. The morning was glorious. A misty plasma covered the volcano, and the shimmer of a rainbow occasionally appeared. The wind rushed through the towering pines lining the roadside as songbirds crisscrossed between them. Butterflies flitted about my head and hummingbirds zoomed through the flowers. I pictured my family in the US at that moment. They would be getting up and getting ready to open presents. I took an inventory of my blessings and felt a melancholy sort of peace.

As I approached the end of my walk, I passed the house two lots from mine; it’s a small home with several indigenous families living inside and is surrounded with rowdy dogs, ponies, and chickens. A group of young girls skipped from the driveway and passed me on their way up the steep road. The smallest one asked me for a regalo. I said that I didn’t have any gifts. Then four more children piled onto the driveway: two grimy-faced boys and two stringy-haired girls who held bundled-up infants. They slung the babies from arm to arm as if they were dolls, making me anxious that one of them would drop. One of the boys asked excitedly if I had any regalos. I said no.

I thought, What? Do I look like Santa Claus? Then he asked if there were presents down the road, referring to my house. I said no, and Feliz Navi and then made a quick and awkward getaway. They didn’t seemed surprised or disappointed. I think they were expecting a no but figured it was worth a shot to ask the gringa.

As I walked away, I thought about the pile of cookies, the leftover ham, the shiny new gadgets I got for Christmas, the ridiculous amount of delicious human food my dogs consumed, and I felt like running back to ask the poor children if they liked galletas. I thought I might bring a bag of cookies down and maybe some hand-me-downs. God knows I have a lot of stuff I need to giveaway.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of goodwill, kindness, and generosity. Spread good cheer. Love thy neighbor, etc. And just the thought of doing this flooded me with the warm, Christmassy feeling one is supposed to have. Yes! I thought. I will give to the little ones! God bless us everyone!

But with every step closer to my house, the rush of generosity wore off. What if I gave them food and they showed up on my doorstep the next morning? And every morning after that?

Indigenous children walking down a road El Salto Boquete Panama

I know, it sounds terrible, but we’ve been in certain situations like that before. My husband is very generous and will lend anyone money or grant a favor if they ask for it. In the past, this has led to a perpetual lending of money to those who would never (or could never) pay us back.

Once our previous neighbors left their four children alone for days and days. They ran out of food, and we ended up going to the supermarket to buy the kids a full grocery order. The life of the native people is hard, and if they find someone to lean on, they will. I don’t blame them, but I didn’t want to invite another situation like that.

So WWJD? This was his birthday. Of course, he would welcome the children and the who-knows-how-many people squished in that house and offer them all the food and regalos he had. But me?

I don’t consider myself a Christian. However, I believe in Jesus as a great man, one who was able to realize his highest self, one who was capable of truly giving his heart to God. I believe we are all sons of God (or whatever you like to call him/her/it), and every one of us has the potential to be like Jesus, Buddha, and all the other great ones, if only we could put aside our fear, selfishness, and ignorance. Every day, in every situation, we get a choice. We decide whether to serve ourselves or serve a higher purpose.

But no. I didn’t want to give any cookies away and risk starting a relationship with the neighbors that might result in me becoming their patron. Does this make me a Scrooge?

Yes, I think it does.

I think we should be willing to give all year long and unconditionally. But I don’t live in a country where I feel safe helping strangers, and being the idealist I am, this makes me hate myself just a little more every time I compromise one of my beliefs for the sake of practicality. I feel guilty about enjoying myself while other people are struggling, but I don’t think that means I can be considered a good person. I believe a good person does something about suffering.

Am I a coward because I don’t feel secure enough to give and without allowing people take advantage of me? Or am I just too lazy and self-centered to be bothered with the plight of others? How do you differentiate selfishness from self-preservation? I don’t know. Maybe you can tell me.


What do you think?

Does altruism exist?

What would you do?

Am I a scrooge?


Edited by Change It Up Edit