Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

"If I Had A Million Dollars ..."

The original article can be found on here:
Monday, September 12, 2005
(SF Gate)
FINDING MY RELIGION/Born into great wealth, Tracy Gary finds happiness in giving her money away
David Ian Miller, Special to SF Gate

Most of us fantasize about wealth. We imagine what it would be like to own whatever we wanted, to be free from the burden of earning a living.

In America in 2005, the pursuit of wealth is a kind of secular religion. The rich celebrities and business moguls flaunting their worth on magazine covers and reality TV shows are the high priests. Money, of course, is a false god. Yet we cling to the idea that financial nirvana is attainable.

Then there's Tracy Gary. She had more money than most people dream of having, and she gave it all away. In her 20s, Gary decided that her family's inheritance could do more good helping others than buying hermore things.

That decision was rooted in her own eclectic spirituality, the purpose of which, she believes, is to serve others and to work for the public good.

Over the last 25 years, she's helped start many nonprofit organizations working for social change, such as the Women's Foundation of San Francisco and the International Donor Dialogue Network. She's also inspired other wealthy people to take up philanthropy through Community Consulting Services, which she founded in 1978.

Gary, 54, spoke with me last week by phone from Houston, where she was helping out as a volunteer with the Hurricane Katrina relief effort.

So, you've been volunteering at the Houston Astrodome. What are you doing there, exactly?

Whatever is needed to help people rebuild their lives. I'm with the medical volunteers. We've been mostly registering people as they arrive and talking with them about what they need in terms of care.

After we see them, they're directed to a nurse, doctor or therapist.Basically, we're hearing their stories and doing a brief intake dialogue about their body, mind and spirit so they can get the help they need.

What kinds of stories are you hearing from victims?

There are so many stories -- it's overwhelming. I've heard tales of enormous grief -- people who are terrified they're never going to see their family members or homes again.

I've heard stories about families of 50 people who had only one car and had to decide who got to leave town and who had to stay. Now they can't find the rest of their loved ones.

A lot of these people have lost everything they own, all their worldly possessions. You're someone who voluntarily gave up most of your money.How does that affect your perspective on their loss?

I can't tell people what they should feel under these circumstances, but I can say from my experience that what matters is your family, your community and your faith, not what you own or don't own.

My family had houses in New York, Florida, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Paris, France. We had 36 people working for us. We owned helicopters, planes and Rolls Royces. But I realized that no amount of money could buy love, and no amount of money could buy faith and compassion. And many, many wealthy people that I knew and worked with in those years were very unhappy.

Why were they unhappy?

They were suffering from enormous isolation. They'd chosen that fate for themselves by living in 5,000-10,000-square-foot houses where, you know, the desire was to have space and a certain amount of privacy and solitude.

But eventually they realized it was making them miserable. They were craving something that money couldn't buy.

The idea of a rich person suffering like that is not the story you usually hear. Americans tend to glorify wealth and the good life.

Until they get the money and then they realize that it isn't fulfilling.

What I'm saying is that once you buy the toys that you have been wanting -- that car, that new computer, that whatever -- there is something that sets in that is just so vapid.

The question is, how much is enough? What's really important? If somebody asked me what I would choose -- whether I could have $500,000 and live as comfortably as I wanted or I could have a guarantee of knowing how to build a community with people who shared my values and try to change the world -- I would choose the community in a second.

Your parents came from wealthy families. Where did they get their money?

My mother was part of the Pillsbury family, but she didn't inherit most of her wealth. She made money as a stockbroker, beginning in World War II,and her second husband, Theodore Gary, was quite wealthy. His grandfather held the patent for the dial telephone. Because of the businesses that my mother and stepfather created together over the years, their wealth actually doubled and tripled in their lifetimes.

How much money are we talking about?

They had $30 or $40 million in 1970, so that would be the equivalent of maybe $60 to $70 million today.

Eventually your parents passed some of that money on to you as aninheritance, but you decided to give it away. Why did you do that?

When I came to San Francisco in 1973, I had just finished a degree in mythology from Sarah Lawrence College. Joseph Campbell, who was one of my teachers, had basically said, "You know, you really have to think about who you are."

And so I began asking myself, what does it mean to be a wealthy WASP in America in 1973? I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I started volunteering at different places, thinking that I would eventually get a job in San Francisco.

Where did you volunteer?

I volunteered for the public defender's office, for a hospital, forEdgewood Children's Home and for the American Friends Service Committee on farm workers stuff.

Eventually, you founded an organization where wealthy people could donate their money to create grants for nonprofits in Northern California.

At the age of 25, I made a plan to give away all my money by the time I turned 35. I decided I would also try to inspire other families who were thinking about giving their money away to become social-change donors. I realized that this money could do an enormous amount of good for these organizations.

So you gave away your inheritance. How much money do you live on these days?

I try to live on $35,000 to $45,000, depending upon the year. I also have a house in Marin County that I bought in the 1970s. So I have a good life. I have fun. I don't live like a monk. I live modestly so I can support local and global nonprofits like Changemakers, the latest organization I've help found with others.

Where did this desire to help people come from? Was it something you were taught to do?

There was a connection made for me early on by my parents that there is no greater gift than giving, sharing and being with another person. That was a given in our family. And so it did not feel like an obligation. The spirit just sort of moved us to be engaged.

What is the relationship between philanthropy and spirituality in your life?

They are very entwined. Philanthropy really is about volunteering your money and time for the public good, and I feel strongly that spirituality at its highest level has a similar focus. It's about extending care and faith to make the world a better place.

What is your religious background?

I grew up in a Christian environment -- my family was Episcopalian. I wasn't deeply into the Bible or Jesus Christ, but I see Jesus now as quite a servant, someone who did remarkable things for the community. If you look at the quality of the human being that Jesus Christ was, it's extremely inspiring.

Do you still consider yourself a Christian?

Well, I'm comfortable with some of the passages in the Bible, some of the Nicene Creed and some of the things that I grew up with as a kid. But over time, much of the church has lost its appeal for me, and it's been replaced by Buddhism and other teachings. In the 1970s I got into 12-step programs that were really a form of religion. To my mind, so is feminism, through which I've found an enormous spirit and community.

What appeals to you about Buddhism?

The idea that life is suffering, and the goal of learning to be present. Also the notion of simplifying one's life is extremely powerful, I think.

So you have kind of an eclectic spiritual identity. That's like a lot of people, especially in the Bay Area.

I think so. There are so many forums right now for letting spirit into your life and for allowing our hearts to be open. And I'm grateful for that.

I really have a vision of a world that I want to live in and that I want others to be able to live in, and it's a world that works a lot better than New Orleans is working, a lot better than the Astrodome is working. It's a world that is actually within our reach and a possibility, and Iwill work every day toward that, because I have seen what can happen with the power of people coming together and putting aside their self-interest for something that is greater.

When you talk about something that is greater than yourself, what do you mean? Is that your idea of God?

You know, I'm not sure. But it's not important to me to name what it is or what it isn't. I certainly believe in God. I believe in a higher force.But I find God in nature, and I find God in love, and I find God in lots and lots of different places, so I'm not a purist about that. I've found as much spirit sleeping under a grove of 2,000-year-old redwood trees, you know, as I have in the greatest cathedrals in the world in Europe.

During his far-flung career in journalism, Bay Area writer and editorDavid Ian Miller has worked as a city hall reporter, personal finance writer, cable television executive and managing editor of a technology news site. His writing credits include, Wired News and The New York Observer.
----------------------------------------------------------------------Copyright 2005 SF Gate

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