Because I am a creature of habit, I see them around 5:30 nearly every morning as I make my way to the gym. They are both smallish, probably in their mid-60s. And even though it’s still pretty dark that early, I can see that they resemble one another in the way that long-married couples often do — both seem to have pretty much the same haircut, the same glasses, and even the same slightly stooped posture and cramped gait. Thankfully, they are wearing matching reflective vests — the kind normally sported by highway workers — so the handful of us who are out this early have no trouble spotting them from a pretty good ways away. It’s clear they are walking for exercise, though not just exercise, for as they make their way along the street, they stoop to pick up empty water bottles or hot dog boxes or stray plastic bags, anything that’s accumulated along the curb since the previous morning. And this morning when I see them, I think of Bill Gates.
It’s a stretch, I know. Though he may do so, I find it hard to imagine that Bill Gates spends much time in a reflective vest picking up trash. In fact years ago, I read an funny piece in Harper’s by Brad Templeton that calculated that it wouldn’t be worth the software titan’s time to even stop to pick up a $1000 bill (that number has long since increased, I’m sure). But Bill Gates, along with Warren Buffet and a few dozen other billionaires, have just pledged to do something very interesting — give away the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes through an initiative called The Giving Pledge.
It’s an admirable gesture, I think, one that has the power to make a significant impact in the philanthropic landscape. But there’s a risk here, too. By hearkening back to the days of the billionaire philanthropists of old — the Carnegies, the Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts — we may find it easier to imagine that giving back is the obligation of only that rarefied class. The gesture they are making is so far beyond the capacity, even the imagination, of most of us that it can, if viewed from a certain perspective, seem utterly foreign.
I have the good fortune to work in a trade in which I continually see evidence of giving in action. I routinely meet and write about those who have given thousands, tens of thousands, even millions to a cause they deem worthy, and I get to see firsthand how transformational their generosity can be. Students who might not otherwise have had a chance to earn a degree graduate and join the workforce. Research discoveries that may have remained hidden are brought forth, carrying with them the potential to change our world. Scholars who have much to offer and little time to articulate it find the intellectual breathing room to help us understand more about who we are.
Yet when I think of this couple scuttling along in the predawn light reflecting back my headlights, I’m thinking that they, too, are giving back. They are making a small, silent, almost unseen gesture that edifies their community and, by extension, them. They are acting on an impulse that exists in all of us, no matter how hard we may seek ways to stifle it, and that is the impulse to give something back. Time. Talent. Treasure. It doesn’t matter.
I’m glad to see the list of billionaires who have taken the pledge to give back, just as I’m glad to see the quiet gestures of the remarkably ordinary folks who take the time to enrich something besides themselves. For both remind me of the richness of our lives, and our deep-seated and abiding obligation to share some of that richness.