To Give or Not to Give

“Wherever there is a human in need, there is an opportunity for kindness and to make a difference.” (Kevin Heath)

Attribution: Donna CameronOver these last couple of years of writing and talking about kindness, a consistently controversial topic of conversation has been whether or not to give money to panhandlers and homeless people. I know people who always try to carry a stash of dollar bills to hand out when they can. An acquaintance keeps socks and hygiene products in her car and offers them to people who appear to be in need.

I also know people—good people—who are vehement that such handouts are wrong-headed and counter-productive. They say the people seeking our dollars are just lazy; if given money, they’ll use it for drugs or alcohol. We’re just enabling them, they tell me.

While attending a conference in Washington, D.C., several years back, I was walking to dinner with a colleague after a long day of meetings. We were stopped on the sidewalk by a young man who asked if we could help him out with any spare change. I reached into my wallet and handed him a dollar. He walked on and so did we. However, for the remainder of our walk and well into our dinner, my friend scolded me for giving the man money. She said he was probably a freeloader who didn’t want to work and made his living conning and begging tourists and bleeding-hearts like me. How did I know that he was really in need, or that he wouldn’t spend the money on drugs or alcohol? She said I was just making the problem worse by handing him money on the street. If he was really in need, there were social service agencies that could help.

I was surprised by her vehemence—I knew her to be a very kind person. She was a nurse, for heaven’s sake! I may have tried to defend my action, but mostly I was just embarrassed. Not embarrassed to have given money, but embarrassed to be scolded like a school-girl. I think I would be more assertive and confident in my reply today.

Nonetheless, I am somewhat chagrined to admit that since that evening I rarely give anyone money when I am in the company of a friend, a business colleague, or even my husband. I’m not proud that I have allowed my fear of embarrassment to inhibit my kindness. I’ve even rationalized it to some degree: this way, when I give someone money, I am freer to stop and exchange a few words with that individual and I don’t have to feel rushed or worry that I’m delaying my companion, or making them uncomfortable. It is a rationalization, though. I fear judgment.

My friend Nancy recently sent me an editorial from the New York Times Opinion Page, entitled, “The Pope on Panhandling: Give Without Worry.” It quotes Pope Francis as saying that it’s “always right” to give to those in need.

When questioned about people who may use the money for drink, Pope Francis said, “[If] a glass of wine is the only happiness he has in life, that’s OK. Instead, ask yourself what do you do on the sly? What ‘happiness’ do you seek in secret?” (I confess, Your Holiness, it’s chocolate.) He also explains that those of us who are “luckier”—who have homes, and families, and jobs—have a responsibility to those less fortunate. Clearly, this is a view not held by all, but it’s one that fills me with hope.

Further, the Pope explains, what counts as much as giving is how we give. It’s not a matter of dropping money into a cup or quickly handing over a dollar and rushing on, but “looking them in the eyes and touching their hands.”

It’s also exchanging a few words. Even if our own pockets happen to be empty, we can always give the gift of seeing someone, respecting them, and acknowledging our shared humanity.

A couple of years ago, I attended a weekend conference in Pittsburgh. It was late May and the weather was glorious. I had a free afternoon, so I walked to a nearby park and sat on a bench with a book. I divided my time between reading and appreciating the sights around me—children playing on the lawn, couples strolling hand-in-hand, squirrels, dogs, flowers, and endless varieties of trees and birds. I remember feeling the overwhelming sense of how fortunate I was to be able to experience it all. For a time, gratitude filled every pore.

After a while, I walked to a local restaurant and ordered lunch, still able to watch the activity of the park and the busy street outside. I asked the waitress to box up my fruit salad and the remaining, untouched half of my sandwich, thinking they would make a fine dinner. Walking back toward my hotel, I felt the fullness of my life and the amazing privilege of when, where, and how I am living. A block or so from my hotel, I noticed an elderly man slumped in a wheelchair. At his side was a can with a few coins in it and a small cardboard sign with lettering that said, “Please Help.”

I stopped and greeted him. Then I said, “I have a half a turkey sandwich here and some fruit salad. Would you like them?”

His eyes widened and he said, “I surely would.” I handed the restaurant bag to him and also reached into my purse for a couple of dollars, which I also handed him. We talked for a minute or two and I noticed how his eyes held a lively twinkle. When I resumed my walk toward my hotel, I felt even lighter and happier than I had before. My brief interaction with the man had felt good. While I’m sure he appreciated the sandwich and the few dollars I handed him, I sensed that even more, he appreciated being seen. He was used to people averting their eyes, ignoring him as they quickly walked by, even occasionally dropping some change or a couple of dollars into his can, but then rushing off without a word.

I think my own gratitude that day opened me to extending a kindness and offering not just the gift of food or money, but the gift of my genuine attention. I received a cherished gift that afternoon.

And maybe that’s a way of thinking about the question of whether or not to give to panhandlers and homeless people. Does your small gift of money, kind words, or attention offer you a gift, as well? Does it make your heart just a little bit bigger…and do you hear it sing just a bit sweeter?

What are your thoughts on giving to street people and the homeless?

“A bit of fragrance always clings to the hand that gives the rose.” (Chinese Proverb)

 

In Gratitude for Friends and Friendship

“Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness.” (R.J. Palacio)

Attribution: Donna CameronI wrote last week about querencia, that physical or psychological place of refuge where each of us finds our strength, safety and sanctuary. It’s where we can be our most authentic self. I noted that in the days ahead it was going to be important for each of us to know where our own querencia is and to have it as our refuge and place of refueling. Over these past few days, I’ve also seen that querencia comes in another important form: friends.

Even when it feels like we’re alone, or when dismay threatens to choke all hope, friends appear to make us realize we’re not alone—we’ll get through this together. Friends are found in the usual ways: the people we’ve known for years whom we can call, or get together with for lunch or coffee, or chat with at the mailbox. We share our pain and bewilderment, we explore ideas, and we find solace in laughter. There are also what I call “21st century friendships.” No less real, these are people across great distances, people we may never even have seen in-person and couldn’t pick out of a line-up, but they are friends just the same. We’ve met them through online classes, social media, and blogs.

In recent days, friends of both types have been gold. They called, emailed, or texted at just the right moment—a thoughtful image, a righteous quote, or a joke to put it all in perspective. They were querencia.

Attribution: Donna CameronI found lavish querencia yesterday walking with my sister-in-law and an amazing 130,000 people across the streets and hills of Seattle. The march—triple the number that had been anticipated—was peaceful, joyous, and immensely energizing. Ordinarily, I feel overwhelmed and grumpy in huge crowds—this was just the opposite. There was always plenty of room for everyone, and on the faces of my fellow marchers smiles, laughter and hope abounded. Friends who were not able to march had sent messages of solidarity and were with us in spirit, providing strength and resolve. The message we sent was one of great hope and greater determination. Anyone who fails to see and hear it is delusional.

This blogging community has also certainly been a place of querencia for me in recent weeks and days. So many people in this community have shared their grief, their wisdom, their sources of inspiration, and their humor (always needed and always appreciated!).

Thank you to so many friends who offered—and continue to offer—strength and support. Thank you for being querencia.

“We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.” (Ray Bradbury)

Attribution: Donna CameronAttribution: Donna Cameron

Attribution: donna Cameron

Revisiting Gratitude

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckert)

gratitude-book-coverStill very depressed by the election, and in anticipation of Thanksgiving, I dug out Oliver Sacks’ gorgeous little book, Gratitude. It’s composed of four lovely short essays, one written just before his 80th birthday and the other three following his terminal diagnosis a short time later. Each of them explores the richness and complexity of being human and convey Sacks’ gratitude for the privilege and gift of life. I thought I’d read one a day leading up to Thanksgiving, but just as I am unable to limit myself to one piece of See’s chocolate if I am given a box, I was not able to ration Sacks’ essays either. I read them all at one sitting—greedily and contentedly. And then I meandered through them again to savor his writing, which is both simple and elegant, and to revisit certain passages that had especially touched me.

Along with my wishes for a Happy Thanksgiving, I’ll share a few favorite Sacks’ quotes here, some from this book and some from other sources.

And, in case you’re looking for a gift for yourself or a special friend or family member—one that might help put the world in perspective—you can’t go wrong with Gratitude.

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

“There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see overall patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future; the freedom to get beyond ourselves…in states of mind that allow us to rise above our immediate surroundings and see the beauty and value of the world we live in.”

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

Hello In There, Hello…

“The saddest thing about old age is our idea of it.” (Marty Rubin)

attribution: Donna CameronOne of the common insights expressed by elderly people is that with age comes invisibility. In a Psychology Today blog post, psychiatrist Tamara McClintock Greenberg noted that many of her elderly patients describe feeling invisible as they shop or stroll or ride a bus. Once aware of that impression, she began to notice it herself: “And then it happened to me. I realized that when I walk down the street, younger people simply don’t see me.” She explains it thus:We live in a youth-fixated culture where people are afraid to age and to be vulnerable to growing older; where ideals about attractiveness are oriented around those with young, healthy bodies.”

How sad that people who have worked, and struggled, and contributed all their lives often fade from view, perceived—if at all—as insignificant and irrelevant. Still very much alive, they disappear like phantoms, forgotten and alone.

Hello In There” was a beautiful song from John Prine’s first album in 1971 (this YouTube version is accompanied by fantastic photos). It piercingly describes the loneliness of old age. I was touched by it when I first heard it in my teens; today, its powerful refrain strikes much closer to home:

You know that old trees just grow stronger
And old rivers grow wilder every day
Old people just grow lonesome
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”

If a kindness movement is going to take root and grow, it must encompass everyone, including our oldest and most invisible citizens. That means changing many prevailing attitudes toward aging and the aged.

Recently, I’ve come across stories that have illustrated the loneliness many elderly people experience, and kindnesses extended to them:

  • Officers in Manchester, England, responded to a call for help from Doris Thomson, assuming that either she or her 95-year-old husband, Fred, had fallen or injured themselves. What they found, though, was that Doris and Fred “were simply lonely and wanted to share a chat and, perhaps a cup of tea with someone.” The responding officers recognized the more subtle facets of their job as protectors of the public; they brewed a pot of tea and sat down to chat with the elderly couple. The two officers later faced some criticism for “wasting time,” but they stood by their decision to provide comfort during a time of need. Fortunately, their act of kindness was perceived by many to have been an appropriate and splendid deed.
  • Earlier this month, police in Rome responded to a report of crying coming from an apartment to find an elderly couple who had been “driven to tears through a combination of loneliness and viewing upsetting news reports on TV.” The four responding officers offered companionship—as well as a warm meal. They visited with 84-year-old Jole and her 94-year-old husband, Michele, as they cooked up a meal of pasta for the couple.
  • In another story from England earlier this month, an elderly woman who had fallen while running a bath tried to call her daughter for help, but misdialed and instead reached a BMW dealership a few miles from her home. When the manager realized what had happened he had his receptionist stay on the phone with the woman while he drove over to help her. He found her front-door unlocked and entered to find her on the floor, with blood on her face, and her tub overflowing. He helped her to a sofa and covered her with a blanket, then waited with her until her family arrived to care for her.
  • And in Hartford, Connecticut, 911 dispatcher Katherine Grady was at the end of her shift when she took a call from an 86-year-old woman, Francis Royer. Francis is disabled and has a heart condition and just wanted to know if there was someone who could help her take her garbage out the next day, as it had been two weeks since she had been able to roll her garbage barrels to the end of her driveway. Grady promised Ms. Royer that she would come over to help the next day, which happened to be her day off. She not only came to take out the garbage, but she stayed to visit and to help dispose of some heavy items and newspapers from Royer’s basement.

The responses to these cries for help are moving and encouraging, but what concerns me most is that very few elderly people who need help will ask for it. They’re proud, they’re afraid, and very often they simply have no one to call. They continue in their isolation, hoping for a knock on the door, a call from a friend or family member, even a smile from a stranger—someone to say to them, “Hello in there, hello.” But they remain invisible.

We can’t turn away from people because they move more slowly, or perhaps no longer hear as well as they once did. Nor can we discount them even if they’re sometimes—or always—confused or frail. Growing old is a condition we cannot ignore or avoid. Sure, we all want to be as healthy and able as possible in our final years, but for some of us that will not be possible, and we need to honor every person for the sum and complexity of who they are and the life they lived.

What goes around comes around. If we teach our children that old people don’t matter, if we condone the invisibility our society confers on the aged, we invite that same experience for ourselves when our time comes, and for our children when it’s their turn. And, most importantly, we discount the value of every life.

Maybe it’s fear that causes us to look away, perhaps discomfort, or obliviousness, but we owe it to our elders to treat them with respect and kindness. For those of us who choose to live a life of kindness, extending kindness to our oldest and frailest companions on this journey is a privilege. There is much we can learn from the oldest members of our society. Let’s appreciate all they have to teach us and give them the respect they deserve.

“When I was young, I used to admire intelligent people; as I grow older, I admire kind people.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel)

 

What We Want Most for Our Kids

“It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.” (L.R. Knost)

Cherry Tree at Storm LakeI can remember my mother saying that what she wanted most for her daughters was that they be happy. I think she hoped that we’d figure out on our own how to do that, since it was a state she achieved only rarely, and was therefore unlikely to show us the way.

She said it often enough that I did spend some time pondering happiness as I was growing up. I never equated happiness with wealth or accumulation. I had a pretty strong notion that happiness wasn’t a goal in itself, but more the byproduct of doing what I loved in the company of people I respected and cared about. College and career taught me that happiness resulted when I could explore new ideas, meet challenges, problem-solve, create satisfying results, and improve the world in some small way—again, in the company of good people.

It took me a while, but I’ve finally come to learn that the most direct route to happiness is kindness. When I experience kindness, I am happy. It really is as simple as that. If I extend a kindness, it makes me happy. If I am on the receiving end of kindness, it makes me happy. And if I witness kindness, or even read about it, it makes me happy.

And the research bears this out. In recent years, there have been numerous studies linking kindness and happiness: A study by researchers Kathryn E. Buchanan and Anat Bardi, published in the Journal of Social Psychology concluded that performing acts of kindness resulted in increased life satisfaction. The “Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey,” overseen by researchers from Harvard University, indicates that those who gave contributions of time or money were “42 percent more likely to be happy” than those who didn’t.

Similarly, research by Sonja Lyubomirsky, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Riverside, shows that acts of kindness boost happiness. She cites a recent study that showedwhen 9- to 11-year old kids were asked to do acts of kindness for several weeks, not only did they get happier over time but they became more popular with their peers.” Another of her research projects showed that asking employees to be generous to a randomly chosen list of colleagues increased happiness, connectedness, flow, and decreased depression—not just for the givers, but for the recipients, and even for people who merely witnessed the generosity. Once again, the power of kindness knows no bounds!

I wish my mother had known that, but then I also realize that it’s something each of us has to discover for ourselves.

I came across an article not too long ago that summarized a research study conducted by Forum Research at the behest of the Toronto Star. It asked parents and grandparents the most important values they hoped to instill in their children and grandchildren. Kindness, I am happy to report, was the number one value these folks hoped to pass on to children. Thirty percent of respondents rated kindness at the top. Number two was a good work ethic, at 25%. Much lower on the list were ambition (8%), leadership (7%), curiosity (5%), courage (5%), and teamwork (4%).

There is an inherent problem with polls such as this: none of these values exists alone. Kindness requires courage, it also requires curiosity; a good work ethic goes hand-in-hand with leadership and teamwork. Asking people to choose one among such interconnected values is misleading. Nonetheless, I am pleased to see the recognition people have for the importance of kindness, and I hope that parents and grandparents will not only wish it for their kids, but also model it.

How to Raise Kids to Be Kind

Adults who want their kids to learn kindness must realize that such instruction begins at home: in how they see their parents and grandparents treat one another, treat friends, kids, strangers, animals, and even the earth. There are no better mimics than children—what they see, they will imitate. They are also smart enough to recognize that a value not practiced consistently is not a value at all.

Kindness must be evident always, not just when it’s easy. They need to see that their parents will be kind behind the wheel even when other drivers are behaving like jet-propelled morons. They need to see kindness at a crowded sporting event when the beloved home-team is taking a thorough drubbing; and when one is conversing with someone whose views are diametrically opposed to their own; and in the privacy of home when talking about a difficult neighbor, work colleague, or relative.

Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd, who directs the University’s Making Caring Common project, identified five ways to raise children to truly value kindness:

  • Adults need to show that caring is a priority. They need to assure that their own behaviors match the messages they tell their kids. They need to walk their talk.
  • Give kids opportunities to practice caring and helpfulness, and also expressing gratitude. Kindness is a learned behavior and will be strengthened with repeated opportunities to extend oneself and feel the satisfaction of helping. Kids who learn the habit of gratitude are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate, and forgiving, as well as happy and healthy.
  • Help kids broaden their perspective and their circle of caring. The study describes this as “zooming in” and zooming out”—this means learning to recognize kindness opportunities in one’s circle of friends and family, and also to see the bigger picture of the need for kindness with strangers, the community, and even on a vaster, global scale.
  • Provide strong moral role models. Here, researchers stress the need for parents to acknowledge their own mistakes, and to listen to kids and help them understand the world and develop empathy.
  • Help kids manage destructive feelings. Feelings such as anger, shame, or envy are unavoidable—but they can be expressed in harmful ways or they can be instructive and constructive. Through conversation, parents can help kids navigate the normal emotional roller-coaster of childhood and adolescence.

Helping children to witness and experience kindness and then talking with them about kindness may be among the most potent of all parenting skills. The result is kind children, who are also happy … and who ultimately will become kind and happy adults. Heaven knows we’re gonna need ’em!

“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” (James Baldwin)