Giving, loving, caring, empathy and compassion, going beyond ourselves and stepping out of our comfort zones to help serve others — this is the only viable answer to the multitude of problems the world is facing. We are in the midst of multiple crises — economic, environmental, and social. And we cannot wait for a leader to ride in on a white horse to save us. We all need to find the leader in the mirror, and take the steps needed to make a difference, both in our own communities and at the other end of the world.
What makes service so powerful is that its benefits go two ways. When my younger daughter, Isabella, was five years old, we were living in Washington, D.C. One day we were volunteering at Children of Mine, a center for children in need in Anacostia, a struggling part of town. The day before we had celebrated Isabella’s fifth birthday with a mermaid cake, presents, balloons, and a birthday party. By coincidence, at the center that day there was a little girl also having her fifth birthday. This little girl’s entire birthday celebration consisted of a chocolate chip cookie with a candle — the cookie served as both her birthday cake and her only gift. I remember watching my daughter from across the room, her eyes welling with tears. Something clicked for her, something that I could not have taught her. When we returned home, Isabella rushed to her room, collected all the presents she had gotten for her birthday, and told me that she wanted to take them to the little girl. Now it’s not as if Isabella was suddenly transformed into Mother Teresa — she has had many moments of selfishness since then. But it was a profound moment nonetheless, whose impact will always be with her.
That’s why I’m so passionate about families making volunteering together a regular part of their lives. I dream of a day when families look at their weekend plans and say, What are we going to do this weekend — are we going to shop, see a movie, volunteer? A day when volunteering is just a natural thing — not something exceptional or something that makes us feel particularly noble. Just something that we do. Something that connects us with one another. It is the only way we, as individuals, will ultimately make a real difference in the lives of millions of children who are homeless, hungry, or living in inner cities where random violence is a daily occurrence.
That little girl in Anacostia is one of more than sixteen million kids in America living in poverty, in conditions that compromise their health, their school performance, and their chances for the future. And the problem is getting worse. The percentage of children living in low-income families in the United States went from 37 percent in 2000 to 45 percent in 2011. Until compassion and giving become part of our daily lives, these are statistics that we will continue to uncomfortably brush aside with world-weary explanations that offer no answers: “The system is broken,” or
“Government has become too polarized to pass meaningful reform.” Yes, there is a lot governments need to do, but we cannot just delegate our compassion to government and sit on the sidelines bemoaning the fact that it’s not doing enough.
From the depths of our compassion, we can free ourselves of all that limits our imagination about what is possible. It’s the only way to counteract the excessive greed and narcissism that surround us. Since the cultivation of compassion is crucial for societies to thrive, it is very good news that new scientific studies confirm the claims of contemplative traditions that compassion can indeed be enhanced with meditation training. As a 2012 study at the University of Wisconsin concluded, “Compassion and altruism can be viewed as trainable skills, rather than as stable traits.” And a 2013 study by researchers from Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Massachusetts General Hospital also found that “meditation enhances compassionate responding,” providing “scientific credence to ancient Buddhist teachings that meditation increases spontaneous compassionate behavior.” If these findings are taken as seriously as they should be, the impact on how we educate our children, live our lives, and solve collective problems will be nothing short of revolutionary.
Evidence of the power of compassion is all around us. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, we saw many people who had lost their jobs turn around and offer their skills and talents to help others in need. In Philadelphia, for example, Cheryl Jacobs, a lawyer who had been laid off from a large firm, opened her own practice to help people avoid foreclosure. So service is not only about going to homeless shelters and food banks — vitally important as that is. It’s also about offering whatever special skills and talents and passions we have. And being of service can help people who’ve lost their jobs rebuild their own confidence and sense of purpose.
When a friend of mine in Los Angeles lost her job early in the economic downturn, I suggested that as she was looking for another job, she might think about volunteering, and I offered to connect her with A Place Called Home, which offers education, art, and well-being programs to underserved youth in South Central Los Angeles. She thought I did not empathize enough with what she was going through. I asked her to trust me, simply give a few hours a week while she was looking for a job, and just see what happens. She did, and she immediately started feeling much better about herself as she came out of the fog she’d been in after not having a job for the first time in her adult life. She also found herself exposed to a whole other world.
She shared her experience going through a self awareness seminar with others at A Place Called Home. She found herself sitting in a circle, forgiving her daughter for forgetting her birthday, while someone next to her was forgiving her mother for shooting her father. And she realized what separate but parallel lives we’re living, which only further feeds our self-absorption. She saw firsthand that what people who are struggling economically need as well as money, food, clothing, and material necessities, is to feel that someone cares.
“To feel the intimacy of brothers,” wrote Pablo Neruda, “is a marvelous thing in life. To feel the love of people whom we love is a fire that feeds our life. But to feel affection that comes from those whom we do not know, from those unknown to us, who are watching over our sleep and solitude, over our dangers and our weaknesses — that is something still greater and more beautiful because it widens out the boundaries of our being and unites all living things.” And that’s really what we are engaged in when we are engaged in service and volunteering — widening the boundaries of our being.
So, happy Giving Tuesday, and now that the holidays are here, please take a moment to think about the ways you can give back and brighten the season for others.
Originally published at www.linkedin.com.