I’ve been watching people, whether online or locally, here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the calls for helping out seem to be growing with people generously assisting others through natural disasters like the earthquake in Japan or sending aid to war torn areas across the world or helping those here in the U.S. to make it through the latest economic free fall. When I see that kind of response and outpouring of care for our fellow-man, it automatically fills my heart with warmth and gives me hope for us all.
But when I turn my eyes from the headlines and finish inputting my credit card number into yet another donation site suggested by a friend and head out my door into the ‘real world’, I wonder what happened…..
Perhaps I should start with a definition. When I say ‘real world’, what I mean to say is the world that you interact with everyday, the world that you touch, breath and effect on a daily basis; from your family at dinner to the guy that makes your morning cappuccino to the fellow commuters you share the freeway with. In no way am I suggesting that the people of Darfur, the Congo or a hurricane ravaged New Orleans are not real, nor am I implying that they do not need and deserve every bit of the help we can spare. But what happens to that astounding sense of generosity and love for one another when it gets down to a day-to-day level? When you really take the time to look around your community, your neighborhood, your friends and family or even the stranger you pass on the sidewalk? If you really pay attention, you will find more than enough people who can use a helping hand or kind word directly in front of you. Yet in our fast paced lives, it seems as if the closer we are to something, the less we see it. The more accessible and mundane the problems; the less likely we seem to be so enamored of giving aid. It just isn’t that exotic to offer to pick up a friend’s kid from school since you heard they were ill or be aware enough to open the door for someone whose arms are full or to take the time to buy some dime store shoes for the homeless man you saw who had none. Lord knows, on those days when the ‘to do’ list overwhelms me, it’s hard for me to see pretty much anything…
I admit it, giving locally is a big ‘thing’ with me. You might even call it a passion. It could be said that my belief is that a person’s community is an extension of their home and even of their self. In your home, you say hello to other’s as you enter a room or pass in the hall, you offer hospitality to guests and generally try to make your home a pleasant place for yourself and others to spend time. Many people take pride in their hospitality. In a healthy household, the people involved support one another in many ways. There is an awareness of what others need and, hopefully, even in what will bring them pleasure. Granted, to stay aware of the needs and desires of those around you takes work, as does tactfully and honestly discerning and expressing your own needs or wants clearly. But when we are able to share this reciprocal respect and energy with our family members or housemates, each individual flourishes as well as our relationships to one another. The moments that it all flows in sync become some of the most fondly remembered of our lives!
Radiating out from our closest family into the community, that respect and awareness takes on a slightly different hue. We are not on an intimate basis with most people we pass on the street, talk with in stores or drive past in our cars. We may not know all of their needs, problems or wants but we can still be aware of their immediate desires by staying alert and really looking at those around us. We can easily tell by the turn signal when a driver wants to pull into a parking space or when a pedestrian at a cross walk needs to cross. When the cashier at the grocery has darker circles under his eyes than usual and isn’t wearing a smile, we can surmise that he is either tired or having a bad day. Just by facial expression and body movements, we get glimpses into other’s hearts and feelings. And even if we can’t ‘know’, we all hazard guesses at the stories of those we interact with. At times when we are feeling positive and open-hearted, our guesses reflect our inner state. The woman hurriedly pushing past us becomes a woman racing to make it to a romantic dinner on time or someone late for work whom we empathize with and we smile as she passes. We understand. That very same incident can cause you to declare the woman rude or self-centered and possibly lament the downfall of manners in Western civilization, should you be in a darker mood or at a difficult time in your life.
On the days that we try to stay aware and look at our surroundings with a positive lens, our reactions can enhance, and even heal, the world around us. We tend to be more forgiving and empathetic. “Forgiving” has “giving” contained within it you’ll notice.
Making that effort to live in the moment and really be aware of those around us- on the street, in our homes, at our work- gives us the opportunity to realize our effect on each person we encounter during our day. Giving at this level does require letting go of a certain sense of autonomy. Looking a stranger walking by on the street to say hello requires a level of intimacy that more and more we in our culture are uncomfortable with. While many may note that the grocery clerk is having an off day, it takes a little more to smile and ask, “And how are you today?” And while it will always be a worthy instinct to reach out to those in devastating circumstances far away, I would repeat the old adage, “Charity begins at home”. Perhaps it’s not newspaper worthy that you made it a point to smile at people you passed on the sidewalk today or that you quietly loaned a friend in dire straits some money or gave up that lovely close parking space to the silver-haired woman who could barely see over the steering wheel… But those are the seeds of kindness, respect and civility that grow and spread. They are the quick, easy and oddly fulfilling ‘donations’ that you can make an endless supply of everyday.