The Power of Half is a true story of the experiences of the Salwen Family in Atlanta, Georgia, who gave up their palatial home and gave half the proceeds of the sale to charity. Their experiences are related by the father, Kevin Salwen, with insets by daughter Hannah who was the inspiration for their dramatic decision. To accomplish their goal, they moved into a much smaller home in their neighborhood, sold possessions and faced the confusion and disbelief of friends and loved ones. They also faced questions of where and how to donate the money and how to be of service both personally as well as financially.
I must say that I loved this book. Ultimately, it does exactly what a book of this type should accomplish -- gets us thinking about what service means in our own lives and how that might look for us. It doesn't certainly have to look just like it did for the Salwens -- selling a house and donating half the proceeds, but I think their main point is that if we all do SOMETHING, it will all add up.
Like many readers of the book, I hold a slight hesitation about the "value" of such a contribution as the Salwens made, not in absolute terms (I mean, $800K given to charity is a major gift.. probably a bigger one than I'll ever be lucky enough to make no matter what I give up), but in relative terms. I have encountered many friends who deride their contribution because what they gave up was SO egregious to begin with and the house and lifestyle they "downsized" to is still bigger and more lavish than most Americans will EVER experience.
But to me, that is the true beauty of this book. I think too many of us avoid service because we either "can't give enough to matter" or that it makes us feel guilty about what we still have. If the Salwens had let that stop them, the people they helped would be the poorer for it. We don't have to impoverish ourselves in order to help the less fortunate.
When the son chooses to take some prize money for making a documentary about his experience and buy a guitar rather than donate it to the cause, it rings alarm bells - even for the Salwens. But it was a valuable reminder that being less consumeristic doesn't mean we have to stop wanting anything, and it doesn't make us bad people for still liking things.
It is pitfalls like this that stop us from giving at all... that make us feel resentful of what we are giving up in order to give. I would rather see the son help to give $800K and give up his mansion and keep the guitar, than give up the guitar and sour his feelings on giving overall. It's a constant tension, but one that we have to face in order to allow ourselves to want and to give at the same time. It is a valuable reminder that reducing our attachment to things and increasing our attachment to people and experiences is a worthy effort regardless of the scale.
As for me, I am looking hard at the service component in my family's life and will be making sure that my 7-year-old starts to understand the value of giving both in financial and personal/hands-on ways (see my article on Charitable Giving for Kids, linked at the end of this page). This book has reminded me that it has to be both. It is also a reminder that giving can be joyful -- not awash in guilt and self-loathing. Giving should be done purposefully and thoughtfuly, but ultimately, it should be done.
Thank you to Hannah Salwen... I hope that my daughters grow up to be as mindful and self-possessed as you. And I hope that if they do, I have the skills as a parent to accept the results as well as your parents. You are an example to youth, especially relatively affluent youth, of how to turn thought to action in service to others while still remaining true to yourself.