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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Haiti Relief

Generosity and giving can result in a certain power over others. Such was the gist of Jean Vanier’s comments in his interview with Krist Tippet on the NPR show “Speaking of Faith.” Vanier is not saying this to be critical or cynical. He is a soft soul. A living saint who founded L’Arche communities where adults with disabilities can live together in love. He is not a cynic, but he ain’t naïve either.

One of the areas of thinking I have been deeply engaged with is the idea of giving. I am writing a book about grace, and I want to push this concept of “unconditional grace.” I don’t want to be a cynic, but I want to ask the hard question of whether or not any grace can truly be “unconditional.” There is a good deal of philosophical discussion that centers on just this point, so there is much about the gift to engage the heart and mind.

Giving, more often than not, puts others in debt. It creates a cycle of reciprocity. Can we escape it? If so, it’s certainly easier said than done! And that’s a fact, Jack. Even despite our best intentions, even if we were to have “pure motives” (which is also debatable), even then a “symbol” is created (to use the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s) in the giving. As such, the idea of “unconditional giving” is easier to conceptualize than practice, and it’s even difficult (yea, even impossible!) to actually find a true-to-life example of purely unconditional giving.

But again, my point in this post is not to approach giving as a cynic.

I was watching the NFL Playoffs last weekend, the rare bit of television viewing I do these days, and I noticed that the networks flashed a number to text for Haiti relief. To give ten dollars to the Haiti relief effort, one only need send a text message to the number. Presumably the process is streamlined such that in minutes (or less, perhaps) one can make a ten dollar donation for the people of Haiti.

I imagine that these efforts brought in many funds, all much needed for the relief efforts. This is a good thing, no doubt. But my suspicions were aroused when I saw the text message giving system on tv. And the answer was obvious to me: why can we (as citizens of the U.S.) give so much to Haiti relief and fail to engage our neighbors in need? By “neighbor” I mean, specifically, the Hispanic population in our small, northern Indiana community. Or the peoples in jail. Or the meth addicts in Syracuse. Or the “poor white trash” who live in the trailer parks scattered throughout the county. That is, there are so many people so close to home who are in need, living desperate lives. So easy to text ten dollars to Haiti and call it a day, says I. Says the part of me whose suspicions have been thoroughly aroused.

But as I mentioned, my point in this post is not to approach giving as a cynic.

In point of fact, I know that many who are involved in the Haiti relief effort are those who want to engage people. Like Jonathan. He’s a pilot. He lives about three quarters of a mile from me. He raises chickens and sells eggs. He’s a political conservative who organizes local tea parties. He is also exhausted from flying his airplane to Haiti and finding ways to get supplies to people who are in desperate, life-threatening need.

Or there’s Kristi. She had a minute a few days ago and sent me some Instant Messages through gmail. She only had a minute, but she had enough time to tell me about how a certain local insurance company is shelling out big bucks. It’s more than just a marketing, image gimmick. Kristi had to roll. She’s helping to organize. Oh, and she is also a political conservative.

I’ll wager there’s a good many stories about a good many good people doing good things. There are many stories of people who are actually engaging this relief effort and the people of Haiti. They care. There are lives touching lives. And let’s be honest, they couldn’t do what they do if it weren’t for all of those impersonal dollars that came rolling in via text message.

Did I mention that my point in this post is not to approach giving as a cynic?

And yet I think that there is still something important to ponder. I think my suspicions are not entirely without cause. The fact is that we forfeit blessings when we live fragmented lives, when we isolate ourselves from the poor and needy, choosing to live most of our lives in the office, with our friends and family, and with neighbors who have the same values and financial means as ourselves. We forfeit blessings because there is a certain human experience that can only be had when we stop for the anonymous stranger in need. We forfeit the opportunity to know love.

When asked by a man-in-the-know about what to do to attain “eternal life,” Jesus replied in a simple way: love God, love your neighbor.

Well said.

The man-in-the-know wanted to push the issue a bit further, to specify and parse words: who is my neighbor? Jesus tells the tale of a certain Samaritan man who found an anonymous stranger laying on the road side (left for dead and passed over by some of the more religiously inclined).

Emmanuel Levinas was a French philosopher who made ethics central to all of philosophy. He talked about “the face of the other.” The other is not just any other, not just any other person. It’s the other. The other that we are suspicious of, the other who threatens us and our way of life; the “Commie Bastard” of the fifties; the Muslim, fundamentalist terrorist of today who wants to destroy the “American way of life”; the meth addict who strips to support her habit, not take care of her kids; the alcoholic beggar in the ghetto who has no intention of changing and just wants to draw welfare. Yeah. That one. That’s our neighbor.

There’s a blessing in knowing those who are in need, those who are broken, those who are poor. There is a blessing in knowing them, in engaging their lives and seeing their face. To do so unconditionally, if that is possible.

Jean Vanier talks about Saint Francis of Assisi. Saint Francis hated lepers. They stunk, so he hated them. Then he visited them and his life was changed. He no longer wanted to live his life for his own esteem and riches. He walked away from a comfortable life in his father’s textile business.

Says Vanier, “We don’t want a God who is hidden in the dirt, in dirty people.”

Loving our neighbor means digging in the dirt for God. What does this mean? It seems to be a blessing found when we do our best to really identify with the other, with the dirty people, with the weak, with the poor. This is not a love based on the powerful helping the weak. This is a resignation of our superiority; it is identifying so closely with those who are in need that we realize how needy we all our. That is, there is a certain blessing only found when we look into the face of those who are most desperate and weak and we see ourselves in them. This is the moment when we are incarnated, like Christ, when we realize that we are that which we have always feared and despised. In this moment, we can then experience the greatest blessing, because we can be set free from what we have always feared and despised in ourselves. As Vanier puts it, we can at that moment welcome our own weakness.

“We don’t know what to do with our own weakness except hide it and pretend it doesn’t exist. So how can we fully welcome the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness?”

It seems to me that when we can fully love a neighbor, in their greatest moment of weakness and brokenness, we can love ourselves. We have engaged the other to the point of identity with them, and at that point our judgments and prejudices against them fall away, along with the many ways that we judge ourselves. This is the beauty in humility.


Cynthia said...

Fantastic post, Jon!

This is an idea I think a lot about. Funny thing is I just watched the movie Pollyanna with my kids. This simple, innocent movie really makes some big statements on this subject. There is a scene where all the rich, Christian women are doing there part to help the "needy" by getting jars of food together to take to them. Pollyanna is given the task of delivering the jars. As she approaches a man who sees the good ole "do-gooders" arriving she perceives his distaste for the situation and says "Mister___, I am not here to give you charity, I am here to be your friend." Really a terrific little movie.

People don't need charity, they need friendship. Friends that have enough love to see them though the good times and the bad. I struggle with the fact that often church doesn't seem to teach with this goal in mind. I struggle with doing this very thing myself.

Anyway, great post. On side note, I want you to know that I still hope to take part in your reading project at times. I just happen to be one of those people who finds too much involvement in computer world to be dis-heartening. I also never come across the way I want to come across which causes me stress. The conclusion I have come to for myself is less is more.

john doyle said...

"Giving, more often than not, puts others in debt. It creates a cycle of reciprocity. Can we escape it? If so, it’s certainly easier said than done!"

One way to break the cycle is for those in need to take from those who have, rather than waiting for those who have to give. And it's certainly easier said than done for the have-nots to take what they need from the haves. It's much easier for the haves to take from the have-nots.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I have much respect for your decision to limit computer time and to take your "virtual" self seriously.

Thank you for your kind comment about this post.

It has been a while since I have seen the Pollyanna film, but I remember having a very warm feeling from how Pollyanna used her naive perspective to just engage people, on their terms. She seems oblivious to social convention and standard prejudice in a way that seems abnormal, resulting in transforming many around her to return to simple kindness and openness to others.

Jonathan Erdman said...


True. But if something is taken against the will of another, then that probably doesn't qualify as a "gift." I imagine, on the contrary, that it continues the cycle of reciprocity. That is, the Have-Nots are merely (in their minds) taking what was taken from them. Kind of taking back what is due them; that the Haves have taken more than their share. The Haves, of course, from their perspective have "earned" everything they have and can't understand the perspective of the Have-Nots.

It strikes me as a form of reciprocity, albeit a negative one.

john doyle said...

The title of your post is "Haiti Relief," so I figured you were talking not just about individual generosity but about the situation in Haiti. Like many people I've been trying to get up to speed on Haiti, including its history and political situation. So that's what prompted my perhaps overly harsh reaction.

You're concerned that giving results in a cycle of indebtedness, but from the p.o.v. of the recipient there is a real difference between aid freely given and debt, as I'm sure you'd discover if you stopped making your house payments. One of the proposed interventions with Haiti is to forgive Haiti's foreign debt, converting what's already been given into aid that won't have to be repaid. Good idea I'd say.

Back before WWI the US invaded Haiti and controlled it directly or indirectly for decades. The first move of the occupying power was to let the US banks collect immediately all the debt owed to it by the Haitian government, thereby crushing the indigenous Haitian economy and making it dependent on foreign invesmtent. Before popularly-elected President Aristide was ousted in a 2nd coup that may or may not have been supported by the CIA (the first coup certainly was US-backed), the US shut off all aid to Haiti. Immediately after the coup the US turned the aid tap back on again. I.e., the free gift had strings attached: it depended on electing someone that the US government and financial interests could "work with."

So let's regard the current Haitian government as a US-installed puppet replacing the democratically elected president. That government seemed completely incompetent in dealing with the earthquake recovery. So what happens? The US military takes over the harbor and the airport. It gets 7000 marines on the ground "for security" before it can get any aid distributed, even though people like your friend with the airplane seem to be able to get the aid in, and even though from reports on the ground there has been very little looting or rioting. It has all the earmarks of a military occupation -- certainly not a historically unprecedented move.

Don't get me wrong: the US people have been very generous in giving to Haiti, and I really don't think those who give expect any repayment. And obviously the US government didn't cause the earthquake. I do believe, however, that when the US government gives it does expect something in return.

I don't think this is just the way that governments inevitably operate. I think rather that the rapaciousness of a government's dealings with people at home and abroad depends on that government's tacit indebtedness to those moneyed interests whose "gifts" put it in power. If the US government is representing the American people in Haiti, it will give liberally without expectation of political control or repayment or "investment opportunities."

I suspect that, if we were to look at the long history of America's involvement in Haiti, that the US owes Haiti and not vice versa. If Haiti had the power maybe it would take over our airports and load up their planes with what they need to get back on their feet again.

Long rant, informed by inadequate knowledge. Anyhow, this is the context I'm trying to figure out, rather than worrying about whether my motives are pure when giving, or whether I make personal contact with the starving people on foreign soil who benefit from my puny efforts, or even whether I love those people.

Jonathan Erdman said...


I feel like you are exploring the same discussion on gift, only from the governmental (or more corporate) perspective.

Your thoughts on the historical situation of Haiti are much appreciated, as my knowledge on the history of the country are even less than yours.

Melody said...

On giving and reciprocity...I don't know that the people who get are/feel indebted to those who give

When I was in college a whole bunch of people gave me rides place or, very generously, loaned me their cars. I never felt like I owed them anything more than gas money and sometimes they didn't even want that!

I did feel, when I finally got a car, that I ought to be as generous with my own car as my friends had been with theirs. So I suppose you could call that indebtedness, but it didn't feel like it.

Or, I have found that sometimes the giver gets stuck with the feeling of indebtedness. You loaned your car, your time, your money and now you have to keep doing it or be labeled "awfully mean".

But most often I find it works out the first way. When people are generous with me it makes me want to be generous too.

As for giving to Haiti

1) It's a crisis. It's an immediate need and an immediate need spurs people to action. Haiti has been poor and dying for a long time now, you didn't have this kind of reaction then.

2. I'm fascinated by people's various rational on the best way to give.

One person tells me that I should send my money to 3rd world countries because it will go farther. Helping the MOST people is the most good.

Another says I should be sending it to where there is the most poverty. That it's wrong for us to help our neighbor's who have roofs over their heads but no food before we help the people who have neither. Which always leaves America last b/c even people who live below the poverty level in the U.S.live better than poor people above it in other countries.

And then there's the argument that I should be helping the people around me, that I know or can build a relationship with. Personally that's just one more reason to send it to third world country. Kidding. Sort of.

3. I'm extra fascinated by how you start this off with your theory about how there is no unconditional giving and giving puts people in debt with each other, but switch over to a call to give more locally.

If I were going to feel guilty over receiving I'd be a lot more likely to feel guilty about getting help from my neighbor than those rich people in another country with their mansions and swimming pools.

Not trying to be critical of your post, I just find it interesting.

Jonathan Erdman said...


Good to hear an in depth reaction from you! I've missed you.

Let me first say that in my mind, the jury is still out on whether anyone can ever give a pure gift. I am still thinking through this. The philosophical thinking, in a nutshell, is that giving is a "symbol" of indebtedness. You mentioned that people don't always "feel" guilty or in debt to someone after they are given a gift. However, for Jacques Derrida and other philosophers, it isn't so much about what one feels. A gift becomes a transaction and becomes part of the circle of reciprocity, regardless of whether we feel that way or not.

So, for example, when you were in college you didn't feel like you owed people anything when they loaned you their cars. I felt the same way, people did a lot for me when I was a poor college student. My thought was, "Heck, I'm in need. I can't repay this person. I am just grateful for their assistance." I didn't feel guilty because I was in need. But interestingly, I also felt that once I was out in the work world and making money, I would try to pay it forward. I think this gives some support to the idea that the gift was part of a circle of reciprocity. The feeling of being in debt just didn't kick in until later.

Also, the philosophers tell us that sometimes just a simple "thank you" is a form of repayment. Perhaps we know that it isn't enough, but it is the best we can do. After all, we are very grateful, anyway. So, the person who gives a gift gets a small return gift of thankfulness. It's like giving back a bit of praise: "it was such a good and generous thing you did for me. Thank you so much." So, the giver then becomes a generous person. This is can be another form of repayment.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Melody: I'm extra fascinated by how you start this off with your theory about how there is no unconditional giving and giving puts people in debt with each other, but switch over to a call to give more locally.

Yes. Another point of clarification is that just because we can't give a "pure" gift does not imply that we shouldn't give. Sure, there may not be anything as an unconditional gift (but then again, maybe there is!), but this does not mean that the whole gift giving process is for nothing. The fact is that we do give and that giving really moves us and inspires us. It is a good thing, a beautiful thing, a transformative event.

By looking more closely at gift giving, we can become more aware of the subtle ways that we get paid back when we give gifts. This can perhaps help us guard against too much pride in giving.

Also, by analyzing our giving, we can be aware of the power differences created when we give. John Doyle has pointed out how historically the U.S. government has "given" much to Haiti, at least on the surface. But the U.S. has also gotten much in return. We should ask the same question about our giving to Haiti now: are we doing everything we can to give for the long-term benefit of the Haitian people? Or will we turn around in a few years and look for Haiti to do something for us?

We might ask the same question about our involvement in Iraq. It was a war sold to us as something that would benefit the people of Iraq.

Cynthia said...

The idea of indebtedness (broadly speaking) is woven into the fabric of humanity. I do believe we can give in an unconditional manner when we come to terms with this fact and give in a manner that respects the dignity of the receiver of the gift.

Also, the main thing I took from this post is that it is sad that it often takes a huge tragedy to arouse people's compassion, when there are tiny "tragedies" all around us in our own back yards. We tend to get stuck in the dailiness of life and don't reach out unless something enormous happens. And then we want to throw all our resources at fixing the problem, until the next disaster hits. I don't think any of us deny that Haiti needs help. I am not opposed to simply donating money to aid those in third world countries (Haiti in this case). But where the problem lies, especially for the Christian, is that God call us to love our neighbor. This sort of implies that we should be awake to those around us. We shouldn't have to wait until a huge natural disaster stikes to awaken to needs of others. (In practice, I can be just as guilty as the next person of doing this, i might add.)

Also, donating money and resources (charity/gift) is a good thing, but it is often one-dimensional and can unintentionally create certain problems, (is this a point you are trying to make?) For the Christ-follower, God is always concerned with depth. Love (not talking about oooy, gooey feelings of love, but practice of) and friendship are multi- dimensional and deep. Giving and receiving out of this context should respect the dignity of humanity.

On a gov't level, as you probably can
guess, I am opposed to US military occupation of Haiti. The American people have and will continue to raise money (millions and millions)and support for the county, which is needed.
I would like to see those people who are able to help Haitians become autonomous and strong on their own terms do so.

Melody said...


So...what makes something a pure gift anyway? How the giver feels? How the recipient feels? Intent? Results?

"Thank-you" as payment doesn't sound like a bad thing.

When I think of debt I think of college loans, which some have describe as, "soul crushing", or credit card debt, which pushes many, many people into filing for bankruptcy.

Something that weighs on your mind. Eats at you. Because there's this burden of repayment.

But if all that is required is a "thank-you" - two little words and a hyphen set you free and it's no burden at all.

No one hides from the phone or tears up their mail for fear of not being able to thank someone.

So...if that's all...what's the big deal?

I do see what you mean about the humility angle and I can also see it as a reminder of how good a generous life can be (not all the time though, it can really suck too), but seems to warrant more of a Hallmark commercial with a soft voice-over saying, "Remember, when you give everyone benefits". Or a communist era poster. One or the other. Not an almost reprimand about giving resulting in power over others.

On Haiti and Iraq...I don't know of a single soul who believes either of those should be lumped in the "gift" category.

Well. Maybe my roommates friend who wondered, "Where was Haiti when we were dealing with Katrina?" but other than the terminally unaware... I think we all know that those were self serving, whether they were justified or not.

Cynthia said...

Melody, I hope you don't mind if I address you directly.
Jon, I apologize if I am missing your point and taking this in a direction you did not intend to go.

I would say that it doesn't matter how the giver or receiver feels (some people naturally feel indebted, others will never fully internalize it), rather what matters is if the giver considers what "gift" would be most beneficial to helping the receiver to be autonomous, strong, independent and if the receiver is open to this gift in the first place. Sometimes this means not just giving people money, but maybe donating time to teach someone a skill that would help them make their own choices and create their own money. There is dignity in that. Otherwise, one might be creating a co-dependant situation or may even not fully address the person's actual problem.

An example from my own life would be my experience volunteering at a pro-life womens clinic. I wanted to volunteer there b/c I know what it feel like to have a crisis pregnancy and I felt I could really help. What I realized in that experience is that there are a lot of Christians out there with a lot of money to donate and plenty of opinions the subject, but there were very few people willing to come in a show real support to these women- most of whom were of the lowest socio-economic group and had other problems (drugs,alcohol) to boot. The thing is that a lot women were/are having abortions because they didn't have the money or continuous relational support to deal with a new baby. I just thought is this how God's Church is supposed to be responding to the hurt and pain these women are facing. Aren't we supposed to be indwelled with the Holy Spirit so that we are a light to our neighbors? Throwing money at something and having strong opinions about a subject never really fully gets to the heart of an issue.
The gifts of money were necessary at a fundamental level. The clinic needs to be there- the women who are working there have no doubt been a blessing b/c of their grace and love. But many of those women need on going support and friendship. Many of those women are great people who have a lot to offer in the way of friendship to us. This is why, in my opinion, giving out of a context of love and friendship sort of nullifies the burden of recipriocity. There is a natural give and take that occurs in friendship.

Also, I would correct myself and say that most people are very aware that there are starving people in Africa, Haiti, and other 3'rd world places. Most people are somewhat aware that there are needs somewhere, somehow in our own country. But for the average person knowledge of these things doesn't always spur us on to do anything about it- at least on a local level. Also, I am noticing in the Church that you are golden if you financially support African missions, but you can be somewhat questionable if you share the same enthusiam for local missions to say mexican immigrants. And you would be sure to be seen as crazy if you dared to house (in your own home)a homeless person.

Anyway, I am going on and on.

Good conversation on a subject I think about often.

Melody said...

So, the gift is only pure if it is the most beneficial?

Should we stop giving gifts until we're sure we're giving the most beneficial gift?

I know, not what you mean, but it is what you sound like you mean.

Cynthia, "This is why, in my opinion, giving out of a context of love and friendship sort of nullifies the burden of recipriocity. There is a natural give and take that occurs in friendship.

Oh Cynthia, that is a lie from the pit of hell. Don't believe that.

Some friendships have that. It's great when they do. Other friendships are amazingly un-even.

I don't even want to talk about the number of times I've heard, "You're my friend and friends..."

While we're defining and purifying things - gifts are only gifts if the person wants to give it. Otherwise is a favor or coercion and nothing racks up debt faster. Favors accrue interest.

I've never had that experience with a dichotomy between African and Mexican-Immigrant missions. I actually find that people in the church (not CCC) are really loud about how much they don't want Mexican immigrants here and extremely compassionate when confronted with an actual Mexican immigrant.

Cynthia said...

I think I only replied to you, melody, a little while ago. I just wanted to submit this again so it would show up in the comments section.

So, the gift is only pure if it is the most beneficial?

The gift is as near to pure as it can be when the willing giver understands what the receiver really needs and does not just give according to what they want to give (although the two are not always mutually exclusive). This is more thought provoking than simply donating money or perhaps going on a short term mission trip (which are not necessarily always bad things). In the end I think this kind of giving is the most beneficial, although the giver might have to forfeit some of those warm feelings that often occur when we give according to what we want to give.

Should we stop giving gifts until we're sure we're giving the most beneficial gift?

No, absolutely not. But we should always be willing to ask ourselves if we are really doing the good we set out to do and then do something different if the answer is no.

"This is why, in my opinion, giving out of a context of love and friendship sort of nullifies the burden of recipriocity. There is a natural give and take that occurs in friendship."

Oh Cynthia, that is a lie from the pit of hell. Don't believe that.

Some friendships have that. It's great when they do. Other friendships are amazingly un-even.

I don't even want to talk about the number of times I've heard, "You're my friend and friends..."

Hmm,a lie from the pit of hell. I disagree. If you are truly operating out of a friendship, especially one in which one of the two friends is in crisis mode and in need of help, you should have the understanding that you are not always going to be "paid" back in kind for "gifts" given. If it is truly a friendship, the friend in need probably will express some form thanks and gratitude for your "gifts". This should be enough to satisfy what otherwise would be a BURDEN of recipriocity. What you are describing is not friendship the way I am describing it.

While we're defining and purifying things - gifts are only gifts if the person wants to give it. Otherwise is a favor or coercion and nothing racks up debt faster. Favors accrue interest.

We absolutely agree here. This is why I am opposed to the welfare system as it stands. I also agree with this on a friendship level. I would venture to say that this is why many people don't enter into friendships with those people who are guarenteed to be needy of resources (money, relational support, etc). I firmly believe that it takes a love outside ourselves to be on friendship terms with people like this. We have to be willing to stick it out with people, and they with us, or else you don't really have friendship. Sometimes we give material things to help, sometimes we say no. The difficulty is simply remaining friends in any true sense with people.

I've never had that experience with a dichotomy between African and Mexican-Immigrant missions. I actually find that people in the church (not CCC) are really loud about how much they don't want Mexican immigrants here and extremely compassionate when confronted with an actual Mexican immigrant.

While I personally know people who are in missions to mexicans, i know far more people who let their political views on the subject taint how they interact with Mexican immigrants. I don't say that it is intentional either.

Melody said...


On friendship (sorry Jon for tearing this away so completely from the original topic!)

No one said anything about a crisis. Not all gifts are given in response to need.

I frequently gift things to my sisters and I can tell you that they don't generally NEED those gifts. The gifts pour forth naturally out of our deep sisterly bond. And they, just as naturally, pay back their thank-you debt by squealing with delight.

But, sometimes people just want things. And sometimes they demand things. And sometimes, if we're very thick skinned, we're friends with those people and that results in an uneven friendship.

And some people are always in crisis. Extremely uneven.

Besides, even if they were in crisis, a real one, wouldn't you still want to backhand a person who said, "You're a friend so you owe me xy&z" ???

It would be really easy for Haitians to say, "Hey, U.S., you screwed up our country and now we have no resources to fund this crisis! You OWE us."

And they might be right - in that instance. But there wouldn't be any text-a-donation-a-thons going on either and if there were they would be guilt-text-a-donation-a-thons. No longer gifts, but payment due. With interest.

I'm just rambling now.

My main point is that allowing ourselves to believe that all friendships are reciprocal in nature is setting ourselves up to
1) Not be friends with very many people and
2) Believe that we are somehow reaping friendship benefits where we are not at all so that we
3) Feel super guilty about assigning these people a special "no answer" ring-tone and hiding when they drop by to make sure we're still alive because they haven't heard from us in two months despite their near constant calls asking for yet another "loan" because they can't buy any more sweaters.

If you recognize the uneven it's much easier to keep your balance.