Ebenezer Scrooge begins with a "Bah humbug!" He is both miserly and miserable. As the story unfolds, he eventually discovers the "givers glow," as I like to term it. He is dancing on the streets in the enduring joy of his new found generosity of heart. A glow stick is a translucent plastic tube containing substances that when combined make light through a chemical reaction. After the glass capsule in the plastic casing is broken, it glows. The brokenness is part of the process. Give and grow, give and glow. Scrooge discovered this at last.
Human beings are wired to give of themselves for noble purposes, regardless of curcumstances. Recently I delivered a sermon in an African-American Baptist Church in Coram, New York. The subject was how we benefit when we love our neighbor. Afterwards, a wonderful woman, an elder pastor who was full of vitality, said to me, "You know, that's how we African Americans have been getting through hard times for two centuries!"
On the inside cover of a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, given to me in 1986 by the Rev. William B. Eddy of Tarrytown, New York, is an accumulating memorial list of 20 people I have known closely as models of kindness and generosity over the years. To get on the list a person must have passed on, and by all accounts, remained generous even in their final days. These are people who understood that happiness is not to be found just in the getting, but in the giving, and they taught by example. Have you noticed the warm glow in your heart that comes when you act kindly? They had a deep sense of common humanity, and they all had a certain happiness about them - a sort of gaiety that comes with a life well-lived and rightly inspired.
In The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion, and Hope Can Get Us Through Hard Times, I describe a bit of an upheaval in my own life, and how helping others got me and my family through the inevitable tough times that come everyone's way.
After twenty years of being "at home" in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, my job disappeared. Maybe we were too attached to Cleveland. But as a family we never anticipated just how challenging uprootedness is, especially when it is not something that you would have opted for in better times. So in June of 2008 we sold the house and moved east on Route 80 from Ohio to the George Washington Bridge, landing in Stony Brook. What a great place! But still, we just had not quite imagined how stressful such a move would be and how hard we would have to work to find renewed peace of mind and heart. As I put it in The Hidden Gifts,
"Suddenly cut adrift from friends and community, we felt painfully uprooted-out of place, stressed out, disoriented, and at odds with each other. Most movers suffer from a lack of companionship and intimate friends, at least temporarily, and doing this repeatedly is really tough. Fortunately, we had those twenty good years in Ohio. We struggled to find our footing with the move, determined to recreate the good life of community and friendships we all so keenly missed. The key turned out to be something we knew quite well, but learned to remember daily in our upheaval: the healing power of the helping others. The medical prescription is this - Rx: Helper Therapy.
Simply put, helping others helps the helper. Research in the field of health psychology, and all the great spiritual traditions, tells us that one of the best ways to get rid of anger and grief is to actively help others. Science supports this assertion: Giving help to others measurably reduces the giver's stress; improves health and well-being in surprising and powerful ways; renews our optimism about what is possible; helps us connect to family, friends, and lots of amazing people; allows the deep, profound joy of our humanity to flow through us and out into the world; and improves our sense of self-worth. These are valuable gifts anytime, and particularly in hard times. If there is one great secret to life, this is it."
Eventually, of course, everyone stumbles on hard times, and no one gets out of life alive. Today, even those who had considered themselves protected from hardship are being touched and their lives changed by volatile economic markets, job uncertainty, and the increasing isolation and loneliness of modern life.
After all is said and done, this move worked out. My wife found a grade school where she could continue her work a teaching assistant for especially needy children, my son Drew volunteered at the hospital, I started working with families of individuals with autism, and we eventually realized that wherever we are, we are at home in that we can contribute to the lives of others. We got back in touch with the things that matter most, and maybe that is what hard times are for. We helped others in ways that we felt called to, we used our strengths so as to feel effective, and we shared share our experiences with family and like-minded others.
Here are four things to keep in mind. First, as Washington Irving, put it so well: "Love is never lost. If not reciprocated, it will flow back and soften and purify the heart." Second, love often does beget love, just as hate usually begets hate, and so good givers need to be good receivers. Third, we should never count on reciprocity because this is sure to be frustrating and ultimately small-minded. Better to take joy when those upon whom our love is bestowed do not "pay it back" to us, but rather "pay it forward" to others as they move through life remembering our good example. Or to bring this to the kitchen table, as I heard one Italian mother in Cleveland tell her son, "Love and forget about it!" And fourth, St. Paul linked "faith, hope, and love," and he proclaimed that "love never fails." What is faith but having confidence that no matter how harsh a particular scene in the drama of our lives or of history might be, it is love that wrote the play and love that will be revealed in the final act.
Do a little good this holiday season. The 2010 Do Good Live Well Survey, released by United Healthcare and VolunteerMatch (www.VolunteerMatch.org), surveyed 4,500 American adults. 41 percent of Americans volunteered an average of 100 hours a year. 68 percent of those who volunteered in the last year reported that volunteering made them feel physically healthier. In addition,
• 89% report that "volunteering has improved my sense of well-bring"
• 73% agree that "volunteering lowered my stress levels"
• 92% agree that volunteering enriched their sense of purpose in life
• 72% characterize themselves as "optimistic" compared to 60% of non-volunteers
• 42% of volunteers report a "very good" sense of meaning in their lives, compared with 28% of non-volunteers
How wise it is to do what one can to contribute benevolently to others!
Some individuals on my The Book of Common Prayer list were well known and other lived quiet lives out of the limelight. Some were appreciated and some not. We might prefer to think that loving servants of goodness would, after a long and successful life, die peacefully in their beds and all people speak well of them at their funerals. But this is too simplistic. Everyone on my experienced an enduring joy as a by-product of their generosity. Thus the motto of my independent Institute for Research on Unlimited Love (www.unlimitedloveinstitute.com), founded with the help of Sir John Templeton (who happens to be on my list!), is "In the giving of self lies the discovery of a deeper self."
The Hidden Gifts of Helping: Do Good Things for Others this Holiday Season