January 20, 2009
Today is a great day in our nation’s history, but I am hoping to instill in my children not only what it means for the country, but for them as individuals as well. One of the philosophies that gives me the most hope about this incoming administration is the message of service to others, something I feel we have gotten away from over the years in this atmosphere of Looking Out for Number One. It is this shift in perspective that I feel will be the real change many of us are looking for in the years to come.
Now, I’m not opposed to looking after myself and my children—of course not. Obviously, it is one of my greatest privileges and responsibilities to look after the moral, emotional, and intellectual well-being of my three children, as well as providing for them their basic safety and shelter needs. However, in providing for them, it is my duty to show them how fortunate we are as a family, and instill in them the desire to help others in need when we can.
There are lots of reasons that people don’t reach out to others—they are struggling with issues of their own, they feel hopeless that their small efforts will make a difference, they feel others might take advantage of their generosity, they feel they don’t have adequate resources to spare, to name a few. Compelling arguments, all, with some truth to them. We all struggle with our own personal issues, be they financial, emotional, or spiritual. And yet, I find that when I reach out to someone else, I view my own difficulties with a more balanced perspective. Those who are working hard just to pay the bills and put food on the table may lament the lack of resources to be able to reach out and help, but really, generosity of spirit is the only necessary resource; you can give of your money, your time, your self. Being of service to others means reaching out in your community and your world with what you perceive as a need, and sometimes, that might even be something as simple as adjusting one’s attitude towards someone in need and listening with a sympathetic ear. Are there those who would take advantage of someone with a generous heart? Sure. I’m an optimist, but I’m not naïve. I truly want to believe the best in others, and don’t mind if every once in awhile I help someone whose spirit is not positive and open. That’s not the point, after all. Perhaps those are the people who are in most need of all, but they just don’t know it yet. In time, perhaps if enough people reach out to them and show them kindness and generosity of spirit, a true positive change can be effected. Finally, for those who feel their ‘drop in the bucket’ won’t make a difference, know this—if you just reach out to one person, you have made a difference, and you never know how that individual effort may manifest itself positively, radiating outward and reaching even more people.
I remember a time in my young life when my mother was struggling. My brothers, sisters, and I may never know the full extent of the hopelessness she must have felt, but I imagine it must have been overwhelming at times—a weight almost unbearable. When my mom chose to leave what had become a dangerous situation for her, she brought along with her four of her five young school-aged children. (The oldest chose to stay.) Her only plan was to seek shelter at the Marjaree Mason Center, but she found, late at night, that there was no room at the inn for a woman with four children. She ended up spending money she intended to feed us with on a hotel room for one night. That was the end of her financial resources until the end of the month. With no home to go to, and virtually no money, we lived out of our car for a couple of weeks, rotating through the only clothes we had brought along—only what we were able to fit in the three suitcases in the trunk of the car. The oldest of the kids who came with her, I was in junior high and acutely aware that it must be obvious to my classmates that I slept in my clothes. My mom was lucky enough to have a few friends in the church take us in here and there for a night or two to brush teeth, take showers, and sit down for a meal. It is one thing to take in a woman in need; to take on four kids as well was truly a burden, and Mom was embarrassed to put people in the position of having to say no if such an offer of help were to stretch them beyond their means. One of the kind families who let us camp out on their floor for a night loaned my mom money to buy peanut butter, jelly, and bread, and that served as our main meal for breakfast, lunch and dinner for the majority of those two or three weeks until payday. We children complained about it vehemently at the time; I am quite sure we did not comprehend the toll it took on her to not be able to provide anything more. I myself did not eat another peanut butter and jelly sandwich for twenty years after those weeks were behind us.
When payday did come, almost all of it went to first and last month’s rent, and deposits for utilities. My parents were married in the days when a man was in charge of the finances; when my mother started out on her own, she had no credit built up in her name, and no savings to fall back on. She was starting off a babe in the world, with only one paycheck to her name, but with four human beings utterly dependent on her ability to move forward and survive. I’m sure there were days she didn’t want to get out of bed, but there were people along the way who went out of their comfort zone and reached out to help. I’m sure the lady at the church who donated a box of canned goods didn’t know if her ‘drop in the bucket’ was going to ensure that we survived as a family, but she knew that on that day, it made a difference to us. I’m sure the man who knew someone he could encourage to rent a home to Mom even though she had no credit history didn’t know if it would do any good, but he did it anyway. People who let us stay on their floors for a night couldn’t give us permanent residence, but they let us get one day closer to being on our own. Those teachers who noticed that something seemed to be different in our lives and checked in with us to make sure everything was okay—we learned that people were watching us, and were looking for ways to give of their finances, of their time, of themselves. We noticed, and it made a difference.
It didn’t ever become easy, but it certainly did become better. It was because there were people who chose not to just ‘Look Out for Number One,’ and reach out to someone in their community who was in need that our family survived and ultimately thrived. There were others who chose not to help because they said she got herself into her own problems, and it was her responsibility to get out. There were those who said she shouldn’t have had so many children. (Easy to say after the fact!) There were those who said they were worried about looking like they were ‘taking sides’ and therefore didn’t want to get involved. The reality is, that’s what a lot of us do—it’s easy to rationalize inaction by judging someone’s actions and saying they don’t deserve help. Did Mom always make the best decisions every time? Of course not. Do any of us? Is that really the best way to judge if another human being is worthy of another human being reaching out a hand?
Mom was a giving and loving human being. She sometimes had the financial means to reach out to others as the years passed, but more often did not. That did not keep her from reaching out. I think she lived constantly with the knowledge of how important service, in whatever form, is, at the most basic and individual level. She didn’t worry that her ‘drop in the bucket’ would be lost; if she saw a need she could fill, she did it. She raised us all to look at the world through those eyes as well, and as we are all adults now, I am proud to see the ways my brother and sisters put that service into action in their own communities. This is one of the most important values I hope to pass on to my children as well.
Are we all going to go out and change the world? All at once? Tomorrow? No. And that’s okay. We don’t have to wait for the grand gestures. One day at a time, one person at a time, we make a difference. The exponential possibilities are endless, as my drop joins your drop which adds to his and hers and theirs. To have in place someone at the top level of our government who makes this a priority to promote—well, the potential for good is limitless.
But don’t wait for the government to get up and rolling. Be the Right One at the Right Time for someone. Anyone. Donate blood, donate to charities, sponsor a child, reach out to families in your neighborhood who might need a sitter but can’t afford one, tutor a struggling child, champion the fight against illiteracy, or breast cancer, or fight for autism awareness. Find ways to encourage and support our troops, or their families left behind, or volunteer in your church nursery, for the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, or the PTA. Find service in a kind word extended, or a shoulder to cry on. Don’t wait for the big opportunities to come along; opportunities for service surround us every day. Be the one to start building that community, one drop at a time. You may never know the impact you may have, but you will know that you have made a conscious choice to act on behalf of another human being. What could possibly be wrong with that?