Poverty is overwhelming. Our local, homeless, panhandlers make us throw up our hands and say, "what will my $1.32 do to help this person?" Global poverty—children eating trash, mothers walking 6 miles to get water, fathers working dangerous jobs to make cents a day—is on such a scale that our brains literally cannot comprehend. Contemplating the misery of the world can make us feel guilty and helpless. We write a few checks at Christmas to ease the guilt. But in general, we lack the time and the resources to ponder the misery of the world. We spend most of our days working hard at jobs we maybe don't like, watching TV, feeling stressed out and pressed for time, and endlessly cleaning and picking up our houses. Unfortunately, many Americans feel like there is something missing in their hectic lives of abundance.
But here, at this intersection of the affluent and the abysmal, there is a connection.Our lives can be made better and more rewarding when we seek to make others as happy as we desire to be. It goes beyond "charity" in the traditional sense of the word. We can simplify our lives, better prioritize what's important to us, and find peace in connecting with others. And in doing so, we are empowered because the word "poverty" becomes less daunting.
Through this blog I hope to help you escape "compassion fatigue" and find meaningful ways to help the world while at the same time freeing you from your own endless wanting.
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The Tricky Word "Help"
September 26, 2016
My step sister just returned from Uganda where she volunteered as a physical therapist in a hospital. There are many lessons to be learned from her experience, but one that stuck out to me was that the largely Western volunteers offered their services to patients, but on the patient's terms. They were not bringing a Western agenda, or dictating that patients will heal in a certain way. They spent time getting to know their patients, finding out the circumstances behind their injury or illness, and working with the patients and caregivers to come up with a system of at-home care that would work. The worst thing would be to have a patient come for this very rare care, and be told to continue their recovery at home in an unsustainable way for their lifestyle. The patient would then benefit only from that brief visit, and not long-term.
We all want to "help" others, to make life better for other people. But we must approach that word carefully. Do we understand what that other person needs? Or are we projecting onto their situation what we need? Do we know how to help them in a way where they are validated and empowered instead of infantilized and insulted? Are our motives for helping selfish or selfless? A good friend of mine taught me that the word "contribution" is less complicated than the word "help." All of us can contribute our skills, our passions, our point of view to the world. What people choose to do with your contribution is up to them. I am proud of my step sister for her contribution to that community in Uganda!
Your Old Furniture Can Cure Insanity!
September 22, 2016
I have spent the last few weeks lost in the task of refinishing our old furniture. I stripped, power sanded, primed, and painted a bench partly torn up by our dog and the final result is a piece of furniture I would have bought new from a store. I had no idea how to refinish furniture when I started. As I breathed in stripping chemicals, up to my elbows in rubber gloves, I cursed myself for not having thrown the furniture away and just bought something new. We could afford it.
But as I learned what I was doing, with the help of a friend and the Information Superhighway, I fell in love with taking a run-down, ex-loved piece of furniture and transforming it into something essentially new. The meditative repetition of sanding and painting got me thinking about the beauty of rescuing old furniture. It doesn’t go into a landfill or end up dusty and unwanted in the back room of Goodwill. No new piece of furniture has to be hewn out of the forest, manufactured using lots of energy, and shipped in a polluting truck to a store.
And I get the therapy of working on the project. Insane asylums around the turn of the century used work as a therapy for their patients. Patients would wash clothes, sew, repair shoes, work in the kitchen gardens, and tend livestock. These “cures” helped distract patients from their troubling thoughts and keep them active. It gave them a sense of purpose.
In our modern world, I believe we are all slightly insane with stress and pressure. Perhaps instead of watching TV, drinking, and mindlessly consuming, we could take care of ourselves, and relearn to love that old piece of furniture by refinishing it.
What do we really want?
July 24, 2016
If you are unhappy at work, in your marriage, with yourself, or with society, don't just consume more to make yourself feel better. Go DEEP into the root cause of your dissatisfaction. For me, it was working too hard in a job that frustrated me too much, and consequently never having the time or emotional capital to do the things I really wanted to do. And even if I did have the time or energy, the things I wanted to do--dancing, writing, quilting, gardening, singing, painting--are seen in society as mere hobbies, nothing to sacrifice money for. But I realized that I would have paid someone else money so I could do these things--these are the things that I really want. I am an artist and I will not apologize for that. So I quit my job which will entail cutting back on spending. But it is completely worth it. I am happier than I have ever been and I don't feel like I need stuff to make my life complete. I need to write, and dance, and sew!
If you want to go deep and think that a tiny part of you might be a blocked artist. Check out The Artist's Way (Julia Cameron) as a source of inspiration and support as you delve into the root causes of your unhappiness.
This month, challenge yourself to:
· Decrease your own “wants”. Can you live with one less latte each week? Do you really NEED that thing you are eyeballing in the store?
· Donate to a non-profit project that can make a big difference for someone else. Did you know you could buy a mosquito net for $10 and save a life?
· Volunteer to help in your community. Commit to one hour/week or once a month. Help at an elementary school, a soup kitchen, humane society, Habitat for Humanity.
Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah
This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Beah, tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he'd been picked up by the government army, and found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.
We have no idea how difficult life is for children in these war torn countries. I'd heard about young children getting conscripted into armies, but after this read you'll understand it in a whole new way.
I saw on the news the other day, that someone had donated $19,000 worth of toys to the traumatized children of Newtown. The newsmen praised this donor as a hero, and I know I should be the last one to criticize charity, but I am struck at how American this gesture is—throwing material goods at a problem. It is the season for giving, and we all want to help heal the wounds of this tragedy, but one reason our lives require simplifying, and why we sometimes feel so dissatisfied with life when we have so much, is that we try to fill the holes in our heart with material possessions. But toys will not revive the dead, they will not restore a lost sense of security, they will not erase the traumatic memories, and they will not make parents more present or loving. What these children need this Christmas—in fact, what all children need at all times—is loving time with their families, meaningful experiences, and reason to believe that the world will be ok. Perhaps a more meaningful gift would be paid-time off for the parents of the Newtown children so that families could be together. And what can we give them? We can look to our own relationships, connect with others, and work a little harder to find non-material ways to show we love each other. We must heal all of society.
We encourage you to refer to one of these organizations in order to find top rated non-profits: charitywatch.org or ecfa.org. These sites are committed to researching charities and informing donors about how they spend your money. They look at board governance, financial transparency, integrity in fundraising, and proper use of charity resources. You want to support charities that spend at least 75% of their income on the program.
"Once there was a people who surveyed the resources of the world and said to each other: “How can we be sure that we will have enough in hard times? We want to survive whatever happens. Let us start collecting food, materials and knowledge so that we’re safe and secure when a crisis occurs.” So they start hoarding, so much and so eagerly that the other peoples protested and said: “You have so much more than you need, while we don’t have enough to survive. Give us part of your wealth!” But the fearful hoarders said: “No, no,, we need to keep this in case of an emergency, in case things go bad for us too, in case our lives are threatened.” But the others said: “We are dying now, please give us food and materials and knowledge to survive. We can’t wait…we need it now!” Then the fearful hoarders became even more fearful, since they became afraid that the poor and hungry would attack them. So they said to one another: “Let us build walls around our wealth so that no stranger can take it from us.” They started erecting walls so high that they could not even see anymore whether their enemies were outside the walls or not! As their fear increased they told each other: “Our enemies have become so numerous that they may be able to tear down our walls. Our walls are not so strong enough to keep them away. We need to put bombs at the top of the walls so that nobody will dare to even come close to us.” But instead of feeling safe and secure behind their armed walls they found themselves trapped in the prison they had build with their own fear. They even became afraid of their own bombs, wondering if they might harm themselves more than their enemy. And gradually they realized their fear of death had brought them closer to it."
Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back Into the Season, Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli.
"The one concern that unites virtually all the people we've talked to is a yearning for a simpler, less commercial, more soul-satisfying celebration. There is a universal wish to end the year with a festival of renewal that rekindles our faith, brings us closer to the people we care about, and brings light and laughter to the dark days of winter. We want to ward off the commercial excesses of the season and create an authentic, joyful celebration in tune with our unique needs and desires." —from the introduction.
This incredible book helps those disgruntled, distressed, and depressed with the holiday season to construct a meaningful holiday without the stress, overeating, overbuying, and meaningless activity, by simplifying Christmas, prioritizing based on personal values, and setting realistic expectations. The authors devote an entire chapter to women's unique experience during the holiday; there is also a chapter for men, and one for children. They discuss visiting with family, giving gifts, and ways to simplify the holiday while spreading cheer to those in need. The book is neither preachy nor self-righteous, but is designed to lead the reader through exercises that will help them think through their unique circumstances and values.
Free yourself from the endless (and fabricated) wants of a commercial Christmas, and you will be able to both help others in need and make your holiday more meaningful.
Here are some thoughts on the scale of the holiday season:
Americans spend $36 billion dollars on Christmas. Your family’s share is approx $900. If Americans gave 1/10th of our Christmas spending to help others, we could provide:
· clean water to 3.6 billion people for a year
· 288 million laying hens to feed the hungry
· $360 billion worth of clothing
· 700,000 homes for orphaned children