I once interviewed a man, who, in his retirement, established orphanages in Russia and later an international adoption agency. He spoke softly, without bravado, about the work his "team" had done to help these orphaned kids, who called him "Papa," and the parents who desperately wanted to raise a child.
Instead of feeling uplifted when I heard his stories, I felt despair. I felt guilt. After all, what was I doing to help the world? What was I doing to make a difference?
That feeling has surfaced again and again: after the 9/11 attacks, after Hurricane Andrew. When my friend grappled with breast cancer and my sister mourned the loss of her marriage.
I felt sucked down by the pain and despair encountered by others. I struggled with the inequality of it all. How can I have so much joy, while others are suffering?
Not only are guilt and despair powerful emotions, they can be paralyzing. Ultimately, feeling so bad about, well, everything bad, just plain wore me out. Then I recalled another thing the man called "Papa" told me.
"If you are raising children to be loving and kind and good people," he said, "then you are making the greatest contribution. If you are treating people in your daily life, with kindness - you are making a difference. If you are living your life the best you can, with love and compassion than you are helping."
It's not that I don't feel pain and sadness for the people suffering in Haiti, or the homeless in Sacramento, or the children of Darfur, or the women of Afghanistan, and the abused children of Portland, or my newly-widowed friend across town, or people anywhere that are suffering. It's that I'm no longer disempowered by my grief and guilt.
And by releasing those negative emotions, an interesting thing happens - you make room for gratitude. You become aware and appreciative of all that you have and in that awareness you have more to give. You become filled with compassion and grace and tolerance and kindness.
When you live in that place of kindness and compassion you can't help but pass it on to the next-door neighbor, or your child's teacher, or to your child. And perhaps your kindness uplifts and inspires those people, and they go forward and do good for someone else.
See, this is how it works: By living your best life, a life filled with love, you can raise the collective consciousness and literally change the energy level that surrounds us all. And that can make a global difference.
So, if you're like me, unable to afford a big donation or unwilling to leave your family to help those in Haiti, don't feel guilty. Instead feel gratitude for all that you have. Feel compassion. And pass it on. Live with awareness and be kind to those people you do encounter.
Today, I'll work to raise a daughter who is kind and gentle. I'll give $25 to the local food bank and another $25 to Haitian relief efforts. I'll check on my elderly neighbor and cook a casserole for the woman down the street who just had a baby.
These efforts are not romantic, I know. They are hardly heroic. But this is what I can give and I think giving it will make a positive difference in at least a few lives. Then, perhaps those people will make a positive difference in a few more. And together we'll make the world a little better.