No, this is not an early Christmas essay about handmade gifts or alternative holiday rituals. Rather, I am moved to write about giving and happiness — specifically, my gratitude at finding a way to help survivors of Hurricane Sandy despite my constrained finances.
In the past, when major disasters struck, my normal reaction was whipping out my American Express card and charging a donation, or several donations to organizations with complementary missions. Of course, that was a good thing to do. Indeed, just this morning NPR broadcast a story on the desirability of sending money rather than stuff to assist Sandy survivors. Making a cash donation gave me a happiness boost, and, much more importantly, helped the recipients on their long road to recovery.
Right now, though, the American Express route isn’t viable. I am not yet making enough money through my happiness work to shoulder my share of our household bills. No complaints, I’m sure I’ll get there — but in the meantime, I’ve put a lot of financial stress on my husband. I’ve got to fix things on the home front before sending money elsewhere.
Still, I wanted so much to help. I believe the suffering families in New Jersey and New York are victims of climate change, something each and every one of us contributes to — which is to say, I feel a sense of obligation to them. What could I do?
The answer came late last Saturday afternoon. Through an email list serve, I learned of a truck leaving Montpelier for the Rockaways the following afternoon. This driver had a list of requested donations, including blankets. Blankets! Yay, I had several extra warm and cozy blankets which I washed, dried, folded, bagged, and delivered to the truck driver. Small though this gesture is in light of the need, I was nonetheless grateful for this opportunity to help.
It’s a virtuous cycle. It’s hard to feel unhappy and grateful at the same time. And, almost every list of happiness strategies I’ve seen stresses the importance of giving to others as a way to feel better. I’m willing to bet that Winston Churchill was no happiness expert, but this quote attributed to him does a good job of capturing the importance of generosity: “We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give.”
I’m also pretty sure that Mother Theresa was not, alas, very happy, but no one could argue that she wasn’t generous. She knew that, “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
That strikes me as a valuable insight. Is the giving heartfelt? If we are grudging or callous, our gifts may help the recipient, but we aren’t likely to get much of a happiness boost. Not that a happiness boost should be the goal. While giving can bestow happy feelings on the donor, it really needs to be about the recipient first and foremost. No strings attached, and certainly not an opportunity to offload unwanted junk for the giver’s own benefit.
Okay, bearing that in mind, I’ve been mulling over ways to give, including cash. In my community, some neighbors needed extra financial help recently to pull through some daunting challenges, and many friends and neighbors donated much needed money. But we also provided meals. Though I’m not a great cook, I did my best to concoct tasty meals for my friends. This is stressful for me, thanks to time and money shortages and my insecurity as a cook — yet, always, I felt really good about having climbed on board the meal train.
Giving can be simple or elaborate. After the Haitian earthquake, a neighbor up the street organized a fundraising “cabaret” at our community center. She went to a lot of trouble — hanging curtains, bringing in more intimate furniture, lining up refreshments and musical acts. The result was memorable, an evening that raised a lot of money for Haiti and strengthened our local community as well.
There was another benefit concert a few years ago for a young family whose house had burned down. Mom, dad, and two toddlers just barely escaped into the -14 degree January night. In connection with the concert, I solicited donations for a silent auction, which raised another $1,000 or so to help them rebuild. I am so glad I put the effort into that event; I still feel a special connection to this now happily thriving family.
Last year, when Vermonters were hammered by Tropical Storm Irene, I was especially impressed by the many, many people who pitched in to do the physically hard and unpleasant work of mucking out nasty flood debris. For a variety of reasons, I never did that. I did donate money; went to fundraising concerts; gathered up books to take to help restock a flooded library; and helped my church target monthly congregational giving to both general flood relief and relief for hard-hit farmers. But, because I didn’t do any of the physical clean up, my efforts never felt sufficient.
Okay, so I’m not a giving super hero — and maybe that’s just as well. A few months ago, I interviewed Kathryn Blume for an article in Vermont Woman. “We don’t serve anyone by burning ourselves out,” she told me. “Any cause we engage in is going to be bigger than we are. We can give everything we’ve got, and it will still be there.” An astute observation, for sure.
Last week I interviewed Paula Francis and Linda Wheatley for an article to be published in Vermont Woman in February. In early October, Paula and Linda completed a Pursuit of Happiness Walk from Stowe, Vermont to Washington, D.C. — a walk which was filled with giving. Their gift to others was listening to the heart-felt reflections on happiness from hundreds of regular folks. In return, they received the gift of witnessing individuals open up and share their hearts. There were plenty of tangible gifts, too — like the owner of a diner where they had stopped who came running after them to make sure they had pretzels — but the intangibles were what made the walk profound.
So how many ways are there to give? Is it infinite? My daughter posted a super cool video on my Facebook wall of a young man performing 22 acts of random kindness to celebrate his 22nd birthday (my daughter proposes making this a new family tradition). There are a lot of good ideas in here!
While working on this blog, I found an Arab proverb which loops back to my dilemma of what to give if not money AND addresses the “heart” of my message here: “If you have much, give of your wealth; If you have little, give of your heart.”
How about you? What does giving mean to you?
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