VALATIE, N.Y. — This week I am remembering the holidays when I was 10. I had begun to develop, as 10-year-olds will, the beginnings of a social conscience and a sense of a world beyond my family. That year, when the relatives gathered for Thanksgiving and the aunts and uncles asked what we wanted for Christmas, I made an announcement that instead of presents I wanted my Christmas gifts to be given to CARE, the organization that fed hungry people around the world. It was partly sincere and partly a way to try out a new aspect of me. Then came Christmas eve. The family gathered again and when the packages were passed out a small pile of envelopes was handed to me. I thanked everyone for their gifts to CARE. And then I waited. I was sure my new selflessness would be rewarded with other gifts in Santa's bag. But it wasn't. My family had believed me, and they had believed in that tiny sprout of caring. In that moment I had my first real experience of the meaning of ambivalence.
This year I feel a similar ambivalence. During this holiday time of largess we're in the midst of a sort-of war and a suffering world. How do we deal with having so much, wanting still more, and yet wanting to be better as individuals and as Americans? We are asked to make choices - privately and publicly - about our community, our country, and our world. Each expenditure is a vote for who we are and who we will become. We say that it is action, not belief, that creates character, and then we go to the mall. Like the 10-year-old I remember, we genuinely believe that we can keep these parts of ourselves separate. The point is not to shame those who suggest that we should do without. The challenge is harder: How do we enjoy the fruits of a good economy - we are still the richest country in the world - and respond to those in need in genuine and productive ways? The ambivalence makes us look away.
But this time of year it is in front of us: The Neediest Cases are on the front page, while ads for watches and gadgets fill the rest of the paper. Can we give without guilt? We're told that the best philanthropy is when you feel inspired or motivated for change and not because you feel sorry. Pity, after all, is another form of power.
Yes, malls are filled with lots of stuff and we have more choices in our closets and on our menus than most of the world's people could imagine. So then should we turn the car around when we are reminded that more than a billion people - 1 in 5 on earth - live in abject poverty?
Our world hurts, but we also have holiday lists. We are attracted to and repulsed by the trouble around the globe. Afghanistan and Iraq and Africa all need our help. Some say our overconsumption contributes to world poverty. But should we cut our spending at the detriment of our own economy? We want to be generous and compassionate, but we'd also like to look great and live well. In these ways I haven't changed since I was 10. I still give money to help people with all kinds of needs, but I also spend more on my hair than most Afghan families will ever see.
Compassion is not a decision but a process, rather like democracy. Perhaps this holiday season we can use our desires to open a place in us for others' needs. There can be gratitude in our discomfort. Here at the intersection of good and greed, where we make choices each day, we can have a happy ambivalent holiday.
• Diane Cameron is a writer and fundraiser.