There was something about her face that wrecked me. Her eyes pleaded. Her coat was too small. She looked to be about eight year old. The weather was freezing and she had no socks. Her parents busked nearby for change. A five dollar bill floated in the bottom of my purse and I handed it to the sweet faced young father who smiled and thanked me while he played his guitar.
But I knew it was not enough. I had to do something more. Her face haunted me. How many more children were out there without a home, shuffling from place to place?
The thought would not leave me. Change had to come, I had to respond.
It took a few years, but finally that call was answered.
Quitting my life was not a casual decision. I left my husband of two decades and a year later the career I’d had for 30 years was pruned away. It’s not that my marriage was bad. It wasn’t. It’s not that my career in broadcast news was a wreck, it had exceeded my expectations.
It’s simply that neither could answer the longing I felt for radical self exploration, change and eventually the desire for what my mother called, “full time service.” I couldn’t go on looking at the suffering around me without responding to it. Writing a check or even occasionally helping out didn’t lift the despair or quench the dryness in my psyche.
I felt like my comforts made me miserable. That sounded crazy, but it kept coming back, whispering : “There’s more.”
More I could be doing.
That’s often the narrative of profound change.
So on a late fall day I walked trembling to my boss’s office in the dimming blue light of a nearly empty office building and dropped off a letter of resignation through the slot in his door. After I did it, I immediately wanted to fish it back out. I thought about finding a hanger and trying, but instead I slid to the floor and cried.
It could not be done. The decision was made.
A month later, goodbye balloons in hand, I planned for recalibration. I got accepted into Roshi Joan Halifax’s Zen Center, Upaya, which translated is “skillful means” and I learned to sit still, listen to my heart and take instructions on getting over myself.
Lest this sounds like a wealthy woman’s game, I need to let you know it’s not. I had no fat bank accounts and no real property. The few things I had, I gave away. While I was sitting in silence my auto pay finished the money in savings so that I didn’t have a nickel left.
Terrifying, yes. Necessary, yes.
For me, it was the little girl who exploded my heart into a driving force of love. For you, it may be something else. Listen to it. Research has shown us that helping others not only makes us feel better about ourselves but improves mental health and longevity. We are meant to live in connection to one another, we are built for this purpose.
It doesn’t take money to make a difference, and it doesn’t take fame and it doesn’t take waiting until some later date. What it takes is pushing against the blade of fear until you’re sure you’ll never make it and then discovering that you do make it, that you do find the skill to make your life meaningful at a whole new level.
You do survive. You do help others and in the process you thrive. Not every day, because service is not a fantasy. Waiting for someone else, imagining a different person will be the hero is the actual fantasy. You are the person called to do the work of service, and you can.
So what’s my big thing? How do I serve?
I house homeless families with children. Our Homes lovingly provide private sleeping nooks for kids, full kitchens and baths and a private master bedroom for parents.
By converting school buses into fully equipped and quite beautiful tiny homes on wheels, young families can be housed permanently and even move for better opportunities without fearing a loss of home.
I dreamed about it for months and then one day wrote a blog expressing my dream. A woman I had never met contacted me and funded our first two home conversions. We started a non profit and I met Arianna Huffington on The Kelly Clarkson Show a year later.
We awarded our first converted bus to a homeless family with children. I see them often. In fact just the other day the two oldest children in the family waved sweetly from their car as we passed each other in traffic. They used to sleep in that car, now they take it on field trips just like other kids do.
Wherever your passion lies in helping, that is where your future is waiting. For some it is in non-human animals, for others it may be racial justice and for some it can be checking in on your aging neighbor or offering a hand to a kid who needs a driver’s ed teacher. You may want to do this full time or on the side. Any way you can help others joyfully is your nexus of truth.
I am not happy every day and sometimes I still struggle to keep food on my own table. There is no promise with service that your life will be easy. There is only the promise that you will try. You will try to help. You will commit to that effort and in your commitment, you will thrive.
If you’re in service or know someone who is, please reach out and I’ll do my next column about that in the weeks to follow. Reach me at [email protected]