There is such a stark contrast between the visual beauty one finds during the holiday season, and the lives of impoverished families within the same neighborhood or nearby communities. Starting with Thanksgiving through the end of December, there are “Drives:” Food Drives, Toy Drives, Clothing Drives, End-of-Year Tax Deductible Donation Drives, Foster or Adopt a Pet Drives and the like. There are so many ways to contribute in this season of giving from monetary donations, to donations of goods and services, to volunteering one’s time in very personal and meaningful ways. Who do I give to? Do I have the time? Do I have the money? Can I really make a difference?
The concept of “Peace on Earth and Goodwill to Men” seems different post this vitriolic election season. Many people tell me they are anxious or depressed, worried, and fearful. They tell me about mean-spirited encounters, and uncertainty about the future for themselves, their children and grandchildren. So, what does this have to do with “giving to those in need?” Everything!
This season I really needed to get out of my head, and tangibly feel the good and kindness that I know exists. I needed more than my coping mechanisms of meditation, prayer, being in nature, and taking photographs while being in nature. I needed to do more than donate money, or volunteer in traditional ways. Donating money, clothes and toys, I receive a tax deduction. The volunteer work that I do checking people into events even for good causes, leads to free attendance at the event or complementary food. Some volunteer experiences, I’ve ended up doing most of the work, and have felt resentful.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” ~ Rabindranath Tagore
There is a wonderful Sanskrit word, “Seva,” which means “selfless service.” What I needed was to engage in selfless service. Seva is performed without any expectation, for the benefit of others, society or humanity. Seva is also believed to nurture one’s spiritual growth. I also believe that selfless service can be healing for both the giver and receiver.
It’s one thing to give a definition of what Seva is, and know what it is from experience. I share this as an illustration. I experienced selfless service as healing this month, as a volunteer for an extraordinary organization called Coat Angels.
It’s simple and profound at the same time. With monetary donations from individuals and sponsors, volunteers purchase high quality brand new winter coats, fleece, hats and gloves for school aged children in need. They shop deep discount sales, and outlet stores. Not one person takes a salary. School counselors and social workers provide Coat Angels with the names, gender and sizes of the children in need. And lots of Coat Angels volunteers sort, pack, and/or deliver and fit each designated child with a jacket/coat and zip-up or pullover fleece. Volunteers meet to load giant bags of winter wear in their cars, and drive to the assigned neighborhood public school Pre-K through 8th grade.
Most importantly each child tries on the fleece and jacket to make sure they fit. If not, there are back-ups for a smaller or larger size. In addition each youngster is able to pick out a hat and pair of gloves.
This is all a very matter-of-fact description of how Coat Angels works. The experience, on the other hand, is joyful, healing, and difficult to put into words. With an open, nurturing heart, it is possible to make a connection with another person in that moment of giving and receiving. The children light up when they are given a coat and matching fleece, in a personalized bag with her/his name on it. They feel deserving of such a gift. They are given the autonomy of selecting their hat and gloves. They glow with self-esteem. They compliment each other.
Many children write heartfelt thank-you notes to Coat Angels that day or later. I found out that at one school some of the young people’s homes had burned down in a recent fire. The children and Coat Angel volunteers will most likely never see each other again. But the memory and emotions for the givers and receivers will be lasting, and I believe healing. Certainly they will be physically warm during brutally cold winter days, and that Chicago wind-chill, already upon us.
“Helping out is not some special skill. It is not the domain of rare individuals. It is not confined to a single part of our lives. We simply heed the call of that natural impulse within and follow it where it leads us.” ~ Ram Dass.
There are many opportunities for giving, volunteering and selfless service. All we have to do is look within our own neighborhood and surrounding communities. My own neighborhood is very diverse socio-economically, ethnically, and racially. The gap between low income and middle-income families is ever widening. Children are living in poverty, and people’s physical and mental health, educational, food, housing, and employment needs are great. The glaring fact is that countless adults and children are in distress.
Many places of worship have a social justice mission, with programs serving the community. Schools, after-school programs, community centers, health centers, animal shelters, community centers, homeless shelters, senior citizen programs to mention just a few, all need our help. There are hundreds of national and international organizations who use donations to help those in need, or for causes. And there are unique organizations like Coat Angels, if you just search for them.
“How wonderful that no one need wait a single moment to improve the world.” ~Anne Frank
Recently I visited the Illinois Holocaust Museum and participated in a pilot program that involves a virtual high tech conversation, involving Q and A with a holocaust survivor, Pinchas Gutter. I asked him what special message he had for us. He said, “Do good in the world.”
The more I give, the more opportunities present themselves in my daily life to do small “good” things. This month, the following particular events happened to me in a single day, a Saturday. As I was out and about doing errands, a man stopped me to ask directions. I helped him, and before I could stop him, he fed my parking meter. Later in the day, I was at one of my go to resale shops, where I always take the time to chat with the wonderful woman who runs the place. She always gives hugs and blessings. This time she passed me a note to open after I left. She asked me to pray Psalm 91 for her. I did.
While I was at the resale shop, I found out that within the hour, there was going to be a prayer circle for the Water Protectors at Standing Rock. My afternoon ended being in community in an outdoor walking labyrinth, adjacent to a mural with the words “Water is Life.” The Deacon read the story of the Peace Cranes, and each of us was able to select an Origami Peace Crane to take home with us.
The following Monday when I was delivering coats to children at a school one mile from my house, a young man was making an Origami Swan to go with his thank-you note. Turns out he is taking Origami classes, and is quite serious about his artwork. These unplanned and unexpected occurrences are serendipitous, full-circle moments that are a source of healing.
There are daily moments in everyone’s life and multiple opportunities to “do good.” All we have to do is be receptive, follow our hearts, and experience the joy of giving, and the healing of selfless service. Wishes for love, peace, joy, and “doing good in the world!”
Originally published at medium.com