Giving Up Half Of Our Possessions Made Our Family Whole

We know our family's decision looks a bit nutty. After all, how many families listen when their teenage girl insists they sell their house and give away half the money to charity?
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Let's start with this: We know our family's decision looks a bit nutty. After all, how many families listen when their teenage girl insists they sell their house and give away half the money to charity? I'll admit, our project sounds goofy, impetuous, perhaps even irresponsible.

But that's what we did. One day in Fall 2006, as we were stopped at a familiar intersection a mile from our Atlanta home, our then 14-year-old daughter noticed a beautiful black Mercedes on her right juxtaposed with a shabbily-dressed man asking for food on her left. Recognition turned to anger turned to action: At Hannah's urging to help shrink the disparities between the haves and have-nots in our society, we sold our dream house, moved into one half the size and began to give away half the proceeds to help people halfway across the planet.

Now, 3 ½ years later, we are cheering as the subsistence farmers in Ghana are transforming their lives from poverty to self-reliance with the help of The Hunger Project, a New York-based nonprofit. And we are marveling at how our family has changed too.

My favorite question since we started this family journey is one we get often: "I understand why a 14-year-old girl would become outraged about the world's issues and why she would ask you to sell your house ... (There's usually a pause in here, an unspoken 'this may sound tacky.') But, why would you as parents agree to do it?"

My wife and I have debated that question, and we've concluded that our actions fit neatly into these two buckets: The concept of abundance and the emotion of love.

Let's start with abundance. In life, it's so easy to find ourselves viewing the world through a lens of scarcity. What if I run out of money? What if I can't pass enough along to my kids? What if my peers have more stuff than I do?

Those tripwires become so damn entangling. They drive us to a hoarding mentality -- a belief that we'll miss anything we part with, maybe not now but sometime. They form the centerpiece of marketing campaigns that torque reality. (Consider this diamond ad: "She already knows you love her. Now everyone else will too.") We lose track of what truly makes us happy, replacing love of community and connection with love of stuff.

In our family, we hurtled along accumulating things too, from nice cars to the dream house, full in the belief that we needed the next new thing in our lives. A classic scarcity mindset, trying to keep up with the Smiths, Joneses, Feinsteins and a host of others.

But when Hannah stopped our family's momentum that day in 2006, it forced us to reexamine those subconscious drivers that were forcing our spending decisions. How much was enough, we started wondering. What did we truly need? The answers jolted us. We had so much, we were so full of gifts. Hannah was highlighting the biggest thing we owned -- our house -- as being a symbol of our abundance, not scarcity. If that was, what else was? Our time, our money, our stuff. We had so much!

Since that moment, the more we've examined this abundant life the more we realize that everyone has more than enough of something. Spend 6 hours a week on Facebook? Cut it in half and now you have a new 3-hour resource to sing in a nursing home or clean a neighborhood park. Eat out four times a week? Cut that in half and share what you save with the local soup kitchen. (While you're at it, stop by and serve a meal.) A life of abundance, not scarcity.

That brings us to love. As I pointed out earlier, we live in a culture in which love and consuming are intertwined. We love our car, we love our new TV. Love means never having to say you're sorry you couldn't buy your kid that thing.

Our family was in the center of the storm. If you love your kid, you buy her dance lessons, new clothes, a shiny bike. In our case, we bought our dream house in part as a subconscious expression of our love: That spacious home would be the place where our kids could bring their friends, maybe even show off a little.

But a funny thing happened: In our big house, we stopped communicating. We'd scatter to different rooms, far from one another physically and spiritually. The house actually began to weaken our love, or at least our ability to express that love.

So, when Hannah prodded us to sell that house, she was pushing us to reinstate our communication, our connection, our love. In our new, smaller, "half" house, we live with each other instead of near each other. We interact more, engage more, talk more, debate more, touch more, love more.

Oh, and one other thing: With the money we harvested from the sale of the big house, we're able to fund a new source of hope for more than 30,000 villagers in Ghana. Other humans on our shared planet waking up this morning with more opportunity for their own kids and grandkids.

That's our expression of love.

Kevin Salwen is a speaker and co-author, with his daughter Hannah, of The Power of Half: One Family's Decision to Stop Taking and Start Giving Back.

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