It isn’t like I lived in a selfish vacuum before breast cancer and BRCA2 entered my life. I didn’t. I gave to my church’s weekly collection. I left out canned goods for the Post Office’s yearly food drive and bagged up our unneeded clothing and home goods for Purple Heart’s collections. If the kids’ schools ran a charity drive, asking for gently-used books or winter hats and mittens, or when my brother signed up for the annual city-to-shore MS ride, I contributed. I volunteered as a Girl Scout leader for Baby #1’s Troop. I was a regular at our local elementary school, shelving books in the library and planning classroom parties.
But there is something to be said for being vulnerable and needing to rely on others for help in ways that you never had before. When you are forced to slow down, to adapt your daily life in order to allow family, friends, and even strangers to assist you in accomplishing tasks that you were once independent in completing, it is a revelation. You realize the impact of a simple kindness, like sitting with an ill friend for an hour to offer conversation, or taking someone’s grocery list with you to the store when they are too weak to shop themselves.
It’s not that I never gave, because I did. ALS, Huntington’s Disease, and our local library received monetary donations from me. But was I really giving myself when I was writing a check? Was I establishing a connection to these needs, and investing my concern in them?
While I was undergoing chemotherapy, a local friend, Sheila, would come over and visit with me. She and other women in my community would put their kids on the morning bus to school and then entertain my little ones. They would change diapers, let the dog in and out, wash dishes, and help me navigate my own home. I didn’t know Sheila well at that time, yet here she was, dutifully assisting me without restraint, sacrificing the time she could be spending working or devoting to her own family. One day, she casually mentioned Mitzvah Circle Foundation, a nonprofit that serves families in crisis. Mitzvah delivers diapers, baby gear, clothing, school supplies, snack bags, home goods, and a healthy dose of love to those in need. It also provides an easily-accessible opportunity for volunteers to get involved on many different levels. With as busy as her life was, she found time to deliver donations to Mitzvah, and to volunteer in their warehouse. She delivered packages to the individuals that needed them. She wasn’t looking for praise but discussed it with me to promote Mitzvah’s mission, and moreover, to share her feeling of satisfaction at being a part of goodness and change, and of having an impact.
My downtime afforded me the opportunity to reflect. I may have been aware of ways to contribute money and donations in the past, but did I ever invest myself? Maybe I did receive some small satisfaction from those contributions, but what was my tangible connection to giving? I didn’t have one.
Being forced to slow down and focus on my own physical, mental, and emotional well-being has created a sensitivity towards the needs of others. Charity has become personal, and a lifeline to the good that is in the world. Instead of thinking of charity as something required for other people, I have spent some time on the receiving end of it. The people who cooked for us, transported our kids, held my hand, and took time to chat with me when I couldn’t do much else are my heroes.
Since then, I have become involved with Mitzvah Circle, determined to help in my own small way. I’ve collected prom dresses for a local church’s free dress giveaway. When I hear of a specific need, I try to fill it not only by writing a check but also by offering some type of service, whether it be dropping off needed items or giving an hour or two of my time. Sometimes I can offer no more than a note of comfort or encouragement, but I am sure to send it. I also do my best to include my children in these activities. It’s through observation, and in participation, that I can influence their mindset about reaching out to others.
I teach 3rd and 4th graders at my church on Sundays, and I try to inspire them to practice the Christian Works of Mercy. The kids did a wonderful job decorating snack bags for Mitzvah Circle. They discussed what type of illustrations to draw and what they could write to let other children know that someone was thinking of them and wishing them well.
As a class, we have discussed indifference, and how the simplest gesture—-a smile, a kind word, a small sacrifice of time—-can be something that changes the recipient’s feelings from hopeless to hopefulness. We talk about seeing others as individuals, not labels, not groups to be segregated and categorized into. We talk about empathy, and what it means to connect to another person’s experiences and perceptions, and how taking a few moments to understand one another—-to walk in one another’s shoes, so to speak—-helps us not only comprehend who that person is, but who we, ourselves, are.
I told them the story of a family I know, the Herrings, who have two sons diagnosed with ALD, a genetic disease that devastates a young boy’s life if not discovered in time. I noticed that one of the students, who I would label as our “class clown,” was crying. Before I could speak to him, the student sitting next to him asked him why he was upset.
“It’s so sad,” he responded, “and I want to help them.”
“What can we do?” asked one of the girls.
“Let’s write to them,” another student suggested, and a flurry of discussion over what would be inspiring and funny to draw and write began.
I look at social media these days, with the utter contempt that some adults are treating each other with, and I wonder when the last time some of them were hugged. Seriously. When a young child is having an uncontrollable outburst, when he just can’t get his emotions in check, and he really doesn’t remember why he’s throwing the tantrum to being with, what does a parent do? I know what I do. I hold on to my baby tightly, even if at that moment I’m feeling angry myself. I offer real, tangible comfort. I make sure he knows he’s safe with me, and that I won’t walk away. Once he calms down, we can deal with whatever the issue is. It doesn’t mean I’m going to give in to his demands or that we will agree on the outcome, but first he needs to know that I recognize his experience as real. Only then can we fix what’s wrong.
I look around me now, and I see a lot of people needing a hug. Damn if I won’t do my best to reach out.
Thanks to Jack Johnson and Ben Harper for getting my point across so eloquently and beautifully.