At a recent community meeting I attended, the leader encouraged us to turn to people near us and exchange pleasantries. I said hello to a gentleman I had never met before and asked him how he was doing. To my surprise, he replied with an extremely honest answer. He told me he was far from fine, that given the state of the world today, he felt no hope for peace or prosperity for himself or anyone else and that he could not think of anything that would change his despondent outlook. Although I respected his forthrightness, I found myself brooding about this pessimistic response long after the few minutes I interacted with this person. I could not completely disagree with his gloomy assessment, considering the frequent reports of violence, negativity, and turmoil we witness on a daily basis. I could, however, disagree with his prognosis for himself and society at large.
It seems to me that if we identify the gifts we possess and share them with others, we have a chance every single day to change our troubled world for the better. I know that if I asked my teenage son what gifts he has to share with others, he would respond in a way similar to most teenagers: rolling his eyes at me or delivering a sarcastic remark. However, I am well aware that he possesses physical strength, persistence, and a great ability to work with others. I recently encouraged him to share those gifts through a volunteer opportunity. Along with others from his youth group, he spent a summer afternoon helping pack food boxes for lower income elderly folks in our community. As the group followed meticulous instructions on what items to place in the boxes and in what order, they heard about the senior citizens who would receive these boxes. Due to fixed incomes and medication costs, many recipients would rely on the items inside for all their nutritional needs. Additionally, the conversation and warmth provided by a volunteer delivering the food might be the only such contact they would have all week. After the boxes were packed, the teens worked together to weigh the boxes and stack them on palettes to prepare them for delivery. Those young people took some of the gifts they had been given and shared them with people in need. As they scrambled to meet the volunteer coordinator’s goal for number of boxes packed, they started to realize that making a real life difference brings a different type of satisfaction. They may not be conquering the next video game level or achieving so many “likes” on social media, but the feeling of impacting a real person in a sincerely positive way is unlike anything they could experience in the virtual world.
Choosing to add goodness to the world feels so much better than fretting about bad things we might see around us. Interestingly, the sense of accomplishment we feel is heightened by the choice to sacrifice some of what we have in order to benefit others. I think of my mom, who passed away over 20 years ago. She and my dad never had a wealth of material things: they lived a simple life devoid of luxuries. For years after she was gone, my dad continued to receive solicitations from the charities she had donated to, many of which no one besides her knew anything about. We marveled that somehow, despite raising five children on a limited income, she found ways to sponsor an impoverished child in another country and donate to an organization serving wounded military veterans. She had been given a natural ability to find joy in simplicity, thereby choosing to forego extra items for herself in order to make these donations a priority. We will never know the people personally changed by her generosity, but we do know the world is a better place because of her.
We all have gifts we can weave into the fabric of our daily interactions with others. We can increase the likelihood that we will turn our ideas into actions if, after thinking about our better qualities, we consciously add a “daily good” to our list of things to do. For instance, if we know we are especially patient, we could add “let a mom with young fussy kids go in front of me in line” next to our grocery list; if thoughtfulness is our strong suit, it could be “send a card to a family member feeling isolated.” These are simple, but powerful acts of goodness, creating a much-needed positive experience for an overwhelmed parent of young children or lonely relative needing connection. If we add a “daily good” to our list in the morning and try to check this off at night, we remind ourselves that acts of goodness deserve to be as much a priority as getting groceries or cleaning out the garage.
We make the world better for those around us whether we perform a relatively small daily good or commit our resources to a more involved volunteer project. In both cases, we set aside our own concerns and focus on the well-being of someone else. While we all have struggles, we also have abilities to help someone else. We may have less money, but more time to spend with a lonely resident at a nursing home. We may be terrible at math, but excellent at reading to a disadvantaged child needing to know that another adult cares about their success in school. Helping others gives us a much-needed break from our own issues, especially when we are tempted to dwell on so many things that are beyond our control. Additionally, helping others reminds us that everyone faces problems, some of which could be considerably more challenging than our own: we broaden our perspective, and strengthen our appreciation for the blessings that we often take for granted in our own lives.
I think back to the gentleman at the community meeting, who shared his pessimistic view of the world with me. If I think more deeply about it, I know that I possess a decent ability to listen to others and share a few words of encouragement with them. In a future similar situation, I could express my acknowledgment of a person’s negativity and my belief that better times are possible. Listening ears and kind words may bring renewed hope to someone who feels burdened by the abundant distress they perceive in the world.
John F Kennedy once said “To whom much is given, much is to be expected.” What have you been given much of, and what can the world expect from you? The ability to recognize our talents and use them for good is nothing short of a superhero power. Little else is more important or more hopeful than our commitment to share goodness with the world, so that the “bad news” headline of today will never be the end of the story.
Laura B. joined Empathia in 2000 as an EAP Counselor. Laura has a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from Northwestern University and a master’s degree in Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, with a concentration in marriage and family therapy. Prior to joining Empathia, she worked as a case manager with chronically mentally ill adults readjusting to life in the community. Laura enjoys reading, attending kids’ activities and spending time with family.