Duck, duck, goose

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Since I decided I needed to focus less on myself and more on making a difference to others, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to get my ducks in a row. In the past I’ve served charities that didn’t hold my attention for long–not because they weren’t worthy, but because I thought I could do more elsewhere. For lack of a better expression, they didn’t speak to my heart.

In this new quest for meaning (I sound so cheesy), I knew it was important to serve an area where my passions lie. The problem was that I wasn’t sure what that might be. So I researched and self-examined and researched some more. I’ll spare you the details of my three-month odyssey toward enlightenment, but the result is that I feel compelled to help in ways that address the most basic level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If you need a refresher on that, it’s the purple segment of this diagram:

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To that end, I’ve begun volunteering at our local food bank, as well as with an organization that serves homeless families in transition. I was prepared to have to undergo training and work my way through some kind of hierarchical process of establishing trust. I expected documentation and lots of recordkeeping; after all, this is important work, so it must require an appropriate bureaucracy for organizing volunteers, right?

Boy, was I ever wrong.

The first time I arrived at the food bank, I listened to a ten-minute safety speech and then found myself being directed to a spot in a food line. When someone asked, What do we need to do?, the only answer that came before the doors opened was, You’ll figure it out. And I did. Within minutes I was elbow-deep in giant boxes of donated bread, stuffing it into bags held open by the outstretched arms of grateful, hungry people.

Fast forward a couple of weeks and a few miles to my interview with the volunteer coordinator for an organization serving homeless families. She only wanted to know what I wanted to do and when I could start–and oh yeah, had I submitted a background check, by the way? With her two cell phones and a steady stream of in-person questions continually interrupting our conversation, she didn’t have time to worry about org charts and personality fits; she just needed help. I said I could start next Saturday.

Silly, bureaucratic, play-by-the-rules me asked, Won’t I need some kind of training? 

Don’t worry, said the volunteer coordinator. The person working with you will show you what to do.

Not having all the answers up front and organized into neat little systematized packages sits well outside my comfort zone. I don’t usually dive willingly into chaos and just start doing. I need a PLAN.

Well, I’m discovering that’s not the way this stuff works. The needs are just too great. There’s too much to do. This work is about survival. They need people to jump in and DO, not sit back and contemplate. After all, when someone is drowning, that person needs someone to dive in and lend a hand as quickly as possible. Sure, there’s necessary preparation, but at that moment, it’s too late to prep more–you’d better have already had your swimming lessons.

I’m not saying these entities aren’t organized; I’m just saying that it’s not my job. In this case, my hands are more important than my head. The lesson I’m learning is that when people are in need, there’s no time to waste. They don’t really need me to have my ducks in a row–they just need ducks.

Okay, then. Let’s get this party started.

Do what you can

booksI just read a remarkable book. Packed to its binding with a broad range of insights, one in particular has my attention right now. The book, a memoir of a son’s relationship with his mother and an homage to the books they shared, revives my long-standing question of whether I am really doing enough to make the world around me a better place. The son had the same question for his mother:

“I just feel guilty that I’m not doing more in the world,” I said. “I mean, it’s so easy to read Suite Francaise and think, ‘Why didn’t people in America know more and do more?’ But here I am, and there are things going on all over–child soldiers and genocide and human trafficking–and I’m hardly doing anything.”–Will Schwalbe, The End of Your Life Book Club

It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about people in a faraway country or people at my local soup kitchen, there’s work to be done. The topic could be education, literacy, health, crime, safety, community development, or general quality of life. The questions are the same: What am I doing to make the world a better place? Am I doing enough?

Many days I don’t feel as if I have a moment to spare. I have a demanding full-time job and kids, for crying out loud. We’ve got practices and games and performances and check-ups and middle-school social activities and info sessions and…whew. Plus I’m training for a half marathon, I volunteer on some local committees and boards, I do some freelance writing, and I have a pipe dream of carving out some kind of social life. What else am I supposed to do?

And yet, something deep inside me tells me that we all should be working to make the world a better place. It doesn’t have to be on a grand scale, but some way, somehow, we should touch a life in a positive way. A changing way.

Oh, the guilt.

I loved the answer Will’s mother gave him, not only because it assuaged my guilt a bit, but also because I believe she’s right:

Of course you could do more–you can always do more, and you should do more–but still, the important thing is to do what you can, whenever you can. You just do your best, and that’s all you can do. Too many people use the excuse that they don’t think they can do enough, so they decide they don’t have to do anything–even if it’s just to sign something, or send a small contribution, or invite a newly settled refugee family over for Thanksgiving. –Mary Anne Schwalbe in The End of Your Life Book Club

She later added:

It’s fine to give yourself treats, if you can afford it, but no one needs to eat like that every night. It should be special. [Here’s my favorite part.] If you are fortunate enough to have these questions, it means that you have an extra responsibility to make sure you’re doing something. … People should use their talents.

I understand the feeling of being overwhelmed. There’s so much to do everywhere; will my little contribution of time, talent, or treasure really make a difference? I have to believe that it all adds up. I may not be able to do a lot, but I still have to do what I can. I’m holding on to that.

P.S. If you’re interested in the book, I highly recommend it–especially if you have a passion for books themselves. It’s called The End of Your Life Book Club, written by Will Schwalbe. Loved it.

‘Tis the season

2012 treeRemember when I wrote that I need to learn from my own insights? Well, I’ve been thinking about my Thanksgiving post in particular since the words flew from my fingers. Now that we’re well into the Christmas season, I’ve really gotten stuck on the ability to share my fortune with others from my what-I’m-thankful-for list.

I started considering what I really do to share my fortune. Without burdening you with the gory details of my hyperanalytical thought process, I concluded that I should be doing more. I have a lot. I give my kids a lot. I’ve got room to give others a lot more.

So in this season of giving, I made a new rule for myself. My local grocery store keeps a bin of brown paper bags near the front of the store. They’re all filled with various grocery items and stapled shut, each carrying a price tag of $3, $5, or $10. Rather than functioning as grocery grab bags, they instead are filled with items needed by the local food bank. When a shopper buys one, it is placed in another bin to be delivered to the food bank. My new rule? Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, I buy one every time I visit the grocery store, even if I’m just picking up a gallon of milk.

I don’t know how many I’ve bought, and I don’t care. That’s not the point. I recently wrote some copy for a company Christmas card that included the line, With prosperity comes responsibility. Or, in the true Christmas spirit, For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required.

I have been given much. ‘Tis the season.