I was a weird kid.
(pauses for gasps of shock and disbelief from reading audience).
One example: In an early act of self-conscious, self-righteous charity, I gave away my prized Barbie car. This wasn’t just any car. It was a convertible, pink, so cool. Our Barbies went to Diane Wilton’s pool/ocean in style, I can tell you that.
I gave it away because there was a toy drive, and while I had old toys to give, I believed the act of giving wouldn’t count unless I gave away something I really wanted. I thought it wasn’t true charity unless it involved self-sacrifice. Unfortunately, everyone remained suspicious of my motives. My parents decided I was fickle, that I no longer wanted the Barbie-oh-so-cool convertible Christmas gift for which I had begged so strenuously. Diane Wilton was pretty sore, too – how were the girls going to get to the beach party? At least one of my sisters told me I was stupid, that my sacrifice didn’t mean anything (she wanted to play with it, too). Martyr-like, I cried over my loss, resenting it bitterly.
Though I believe my motives were pure (ish), I now realize that except in extreme cases, charity is best expressed through all-around positive experiences rather than bitter self-sacrifice. Find something you love to do, somewhere your time and energy and money can be put to good use, not only for the recipient, but for yourself.
For six years I worked with a program called Rebuilding Together (it used to be the more poetically titled Christmas in April-- the name was changed to be more inclusive). Rebuilding Together is a program that performs repairs and upgrades on the houses of elderly and disabled homeowners who can't afford to keep their homes up. Here’s the really great part: though the program operates year-round collecting funds and identifying needy homeowners, the volunteer work dates are limited. Usually all of the hands-on labor takes place over one (sometimes two) weekends in April.
(above, me being trained by my Dad at an early age)
As “house captain” I was involved since January, getting to know the homeowner, inspecting the house, identifying needs, prioritizing jobs. Health and safety concerns are primary, of course, but usually we also tried to spruce up the place with new paint, cleaning, and gardening. After months of prep and planning, came…
Workday. I’ve never been to a barn-raising, but a Rebuilding Together Workday has that same uplifting, almost spiritual feeling of accomplishment through community. On workday, scores of volunteers arrive, consuming donated bagels and coffee before choosing their jobs, receiving instruction, and toiling away like demons. Experienced trades-people tackle plumbing and electrical issues, while folks with more enthusiasm than skills dig vegetable beds, or learn the basics of exterior painting.
Working together for a single day, seventy people can get one whole hell of a lot done. A new roof. Windows repaired. Old linoleum stripped, new floor applied. Walls washed, spackled, painted. Water heaters strapped and blanketed. Rotting porches replaced. Leaky faucets fixed. Locks changed, hinges oiled, slick walkways made safe.
It’s an incredibly exhausting day: occasional skirmishes break out, and mistakes are made. We once had a fraternity show up to perform community service work as punishment for a drunken party – they arrived hung-over and still buzzed, lacking any understanding of the true mission of the project. They mowed through the donated cookies and fruit, and then wanted me to sign off on their community service form.
But by and large, the before-and-after photos of the projects (none of which I have available on my computer, unfortunately) show the beauty of the day. Exhausted, dirty, smiling faces. Homeowners overwhelmed with relief and gratitude. A whole lot of folks with new skills and knowledge about house building and repair. Plus, the overall good feeling of having done something of value for another person.
This year, though I won’t be House Captain, I’ll at least volunteer for the day, or two. I’ll put on my overalls, grab a paintbrush or hammer, get good and dirty, and help a neighbor out. Because I can, and it feels good.
For all I know, my early act of Barbie-car sacrifice did lead to some karmic payback –I’ve had a wonderful life, full of luck and fabulous opportunities. But as my eight-year-old self would have pointed out, I wasn’t doing it for payback. Charity is performed for its own sake…and yet it does pay back. In so very many ways.