Tag Archives: giving

Selfish Selflessness

Note To Self – Always remember how you can still recall your parents’ off handed comments from childhood…

As an example, my father, an outplacement counselor,  lodged this memory in a still accessible mental file cabinet. Recounting the highlights of a client meeting with my mom over dinner, he explained, “I told him to go out and do something good for someone else. It would decrease his depression and get him moving.”

Perhaps this snippet stuck with me that I was privy to inside information about my father’s work life, but regardless, it was sage advice that has come to serve me well.

This week, my friend Deborah, doing something nice for another, sent me a New York Times article that provides scientific backup for my dad’s derivation on the Golden Rule. This seemed especially appropriate to share after last week’s Thanksgiving and the Islamic world’s celebration of Eid — two holidays which focus on the giving of food to loved ones and those less fortunate.

As Tara Parker-Pope writes, “An array of studies have documented this effect. In one, a 2002 Boston College study, researchers found that patients with chronic pain fared better when they counseled other pain patients, experiencing less depression, intense pain and disability.

Another study, at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, Calif., also found a strong benefit to volunteerism, and after controlling for a number of variables, showed that elderly people who volunteered for more than four hours a week were 44 percent less likely to die during the study period.”

So, how do we kick ourselves out of our house of struggles and do something good without an outplacement counselor or parent urging us on?

We can make giving a daily practice like making our beds or brushing teeth. A young woman with MS, Cami Walker, followed this tenet after one of her spiritual teachers pushed her to give something to another for 29 days without fail. You can read her story at her website 29gifts.org.

I had read about Cami’s commitment to give a gift for 29 days and visited this site as she was just beginning this practice for the first time in 2008. It was a simple website, just a couple of pages, documenting what she gave each day and how it might be helping her cope with her illness. I appreciated her authenticity and courage as she faced the challenge and MS.

Reading Parker-Pope’s profile on Cami, I returned to 29 Gifts and was struck by how much positive change she has manifested in the past year both in her own life and beyond. It’s worth a visit.

So, whether it’s just for today, for 29 days or every day, what might we do to lighten another’s load? What simple gift can you give? How can we be selfishly selfless and prove my father right? As a loyal advice giver like his daughter, he’d appreciate that I’m sure.

fun + purpose = playing well at work

Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work. – Aristotle

Meaning is a form of strength. It has the power to transform experience, to open the most difficult of work to the dimension of joy and even gratitude. Meaning is the language of the soul. – Rachel Naomi Remen

A Montana State University Honors Instructor Lori Lawson and I took 16 college students to the Dominican Republic last May. These young adults had spent a semester considering the characteristics of dire poverty and how it might be solved. They had read about micro finance, volunteerism, and government aid and had formulated opinions on how we might alleviate suffering. Full of ideas, we undertook a two-week service learning trip visiting impoverished communities and NGOs. Although a class on global poverty, my journey became an exploration on how we can “be of use”.

The students observed a meeting where 15 community members had collectively taken out small loans with Esperanza, a DR based micro finance and literacy organization. When it came time to repay part of the loan to Esperanza’s representative, our group realized that two of the members were not present with their payment. By their contract, the remaining 13 were then responsible for the missing members’ payment. Over the next ten minutes there was heightened anxiety and conversation on who might pay extra or go find the missing borrowers. Meanwhile, the students watched. As one young woman Danielle later observed, “That was one of the most uncomfortable parts of our trip. I had the twenty bucks they needed in my pocket, which I could have easily given. I would have been like instant government aid, but would that have been a good idea?” The students wrestled with how when to give as a country, an NGO or as an individual is not necessarily an easy formula.

Later, we painted a row of shacks in another neighborhood for a couple of hours. As we began, the owners’ children all picked up paintbrushes to help. Before long, some of the grown up residents took up paint cans and joined in. Other residents grabbed brooms and machetes to sweep dirt floors and pull down overgrown brush. The street was strikingly different after just two hours as we progressed from dirty shacks to bright yellow, blue, green and rose colored homes absent of trash. Did we make great changes that day? I’m not sure, but it was fun being creative and to see the painted-covered joy on the faces of the little children.

Our students also spent an afternoon working in a small public library tutoring children who, in a country of high illiteracy, may not be able to find help at home. For some, this was their most favorite volunteer activity. I however noticed that I was more interested in fostering the young adult experience than working directly with the local children. To be of use, I was better suited to mentoring the young adults than sitting with the younger set.

We were supposed to spend a day pouring concrete floors for new homes in a batey or sugar plantation community. We were to work with Haitan immigrants who are typically discriminated against and the country’s most destitute. Everyone had packed diligently for this day bringing construction clothes and gloves for the task and were busy that morning discussing the best sun cover and insect repellent. A few administrative errors later it became clear that we would not be able to volunteer in this way. Many of us were extremely disappointed. I was hoping to learn about life in the batey and Haitan culture. Others were looking forward to problem solving and still others to the hard physical activity. One young woman complained that this day was the purpose for her journey. Although we would have to donate time and $1000 to spend a day straining our backs, the lack of this activity was a loss and I noticed how much potential joy could be wrapped up in giving.

I came out of that trip realizing that we gave best when there was a combination of both joy and sense of purpose. Anthropologist Angeles Arrien often says, “Look for what has heart and meaning.” I felt most fulfilled when I was both having fun and being useful to others.

Play expert Dr. Stuart Brown noted that after interviewing Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin and polio researcher Jonas Salk that they were simply playing every day in their laboratories. Brown described Guillemin’s joy “as pure as that of a kid showing off a beautiful shell picked up at the seashore.” Meanwhile, their discoveries have saved countless lives and alleviated suffering. Financial guru Warren Buffett calls the resulting spirit of combining purpose with joy, “tap dancing to work.”

A core principle of the Hindu text, The Bhagavad-Gita, speaks of serving others, “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.” Paradoxically, we are then told in the Gita that not only should you work tirelessly, but also not care about the outcome. Hmmm, work really, really hard, but don’t worry about what it yields? Feels like an impossible riddle until I combine service with enjoying the task I am completing.

Give back to Come Back

For it is in giving we receive – Saint Francis of Assisi

St Francis of Assisi

St Francis of Assisi

 I know something to be true. My friend Jerry White, has built his organization, Survivor Corps, around this same fact — if you want to fully return to your life after tough times, it is critical that you give back what you have learned to a greater community.  To make it home from the journey through loss, we must find a way to help others. It moves us outside ourselves and as a lovely Moroccan colleague described, it reminds us that we are not alone in our pain.

Strangely, I have yet to find this truth explicitly stated in the world’s death and mourning rituals.  It may there and I’m missing it, or it is such a basic practice that it goes without saying. Are those who have grieved expected to be the first to support those in mourning for example? I invite you to send examples from other cultures of those after surviving loss or initiation, who are then required to support others through a similar journey.  

This truth resounds throughout leaders of the twentieth century. Austrian psychologist Viktor Frankl used his experience as a prisoner in three concentration camps to help others when they were suffering throughout the rest of his life. As he described in his seminal book, He believed that it is critical that we help others to recover; that “Man’s search for meaning is a primary motivation in his life.”  

Co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, once wrote, “While I lay in the hospital the thought came that there were thousands of hopeless alcoholics who might be glad to have what had been so freely given me. Perhaps I could help some of them. They in turn might work with others.

“My friend [who had helped him] had emphasized the absolute necessity of demonstrating these principles in all my affairs. Particularly was it imperative to work with others as he had worked with me. Faith without works was dead, he said. And how appallingly true for the alcoholic! For if an alcoholic failed to perfect and enlarge his spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, he could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead. If he did not work, he would surely drink again, and if he drank, he would surely die.” And thus, we have the final step of the AA doctrine – “12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.” 

Jerry, when writing I Will Not Be Broken: Five Steps to Overcoming a Life Crisis, added as his fifth step, “Give Back.” After losing his leg to a landmine during a hike in Israel, Jerry worked to find a way back to stability. He described a comfortable life that includes four healthy children and a beautiful wife. But, he adds, it wasn’t until a young girl in Cambodia with one leg and crutches said, “You are one of us,” did he fully return. By accepting that he was part of the global community of those injured by landmines, Jerry looked for ways to give back what he had learned to that group. Co-founding Landmine Survivors Network, now Survivor Corps, Jerry has worked tirelessly to ban landmines worldwide and help victims to become survivors. A core principle of Survivor Corps is that once you are able to stand again, you must give back to others. Participants become volunteers and guide the way for the newly injured.  What appears selfless is actually a foundational gift for recovery. 

Once we have gone through the difficult circumstances, we are admitted to special clubs. Some belong to “children of divorce,” others “survivor of cancer,” “once bankrupt” or “recovering addicts.” Inducted, this becomes one of our communities whether it was welcomed or not. When we accept our membership, we then have the opportunity to return back to the land of the living. On our journey alone through tough times, we pick up wisdom and insight in its dark corners. By giving what we find, we must communicate and connect with the living; thus surviving and proving we were able to overcome and rise above. 

As another beautiful friend explained, “I lost two babies consecutively, the first was a still birth in the 38 week of pregnancy and the second died on the second day after giving birth. It was so hard for me to go back to life. Two of my friends gave birth at the same time, and I still see their kids growing in front of them. For a time I hated seeing babies around. I wanted to live in a place where there was no baby. I had to pretend I was okay and people believed it. Then, my aunt, who is 3 years younger than me, gave birth to her third child. The baby had a number of abnormalities and died after three weeks. I was the only person whose support was meaningful to my aunt. 

“She many times told me that she drew strength from me and that she had no reason to feel down when she had me in mind. That was a great source of healing to me as well. I felt this [tragedy] did not happen only to ME. I know it is cruel to think like this, but this is how I really got over it. I had been through a lot of strange feelings that I felt ashamed to share, but when I heard my aunt saying the same thing I stopped blaming myself and knew they were so natural. Her loss was a mirror I could see my negative feelings in. Through her experience I tolerated my annoyance at seeing babies. She had the same feelings, and she communicated them to me because she knew I would understand better than anybody else. Without she knowing it she was as great to me as she thought I was to her.”

What have you learned that might help others in similar circumstances? How have you given back to return “home”? I welcome your thoughts.