Tag Archive: charity


little graces

Advent

Photo Credit: Petr Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Sandra has an Advent tradition with the kids that I love.  She calls it “The Giving Tree.”  She makes up a Christmas tree out of construction paper and posts it on the wall, then decorates it with paper ornaments on which she writes instructions. Instead of simply asking our boys to donate to charity some of the money they’ve collected from their allowances, each day of Advent she has them take an ornament off the tree.  The ornament will instruct them to count a specific thing in our home or lives for which they should feel grateful — something that less fortunate families do not have.  Then, the boys are asked to deposit a unit amount of money for each item they counted.

For example, an ornament this year encouraged the boys to be thankful for their mobility.  So Sandra had them count all of the stairs in our house and deposit $0.10 for each stair.  Another ornament wanted the boys to be thankful for water, so had them count all the faucets in the house and deposit $0.25 for each.  Yet another had them deposit a sum for the number of grandparents they have, in order to help them be appreciative for family.  The boys raised $32 for charity this way.  Just a drop in the bucket of need, perhaps, but a fairly substantial donation given what they have accumulated in their allowances.

Instead of the boys simply donating money from their allowances without really understanding why, and possibly begrudging the donation because of that lack of understanding, they come to understand why it is so important to help others in need, and to be thankful for the things they have. It also gets them excited about the donation because, in a sense, they worked to achieve it.

It’s a wonderful tradition, and I admire Sandra for remaining faithful to it each year.

The Giving Tree tradition reminds me of all the “little graces” in our lives: the items which individually might go unnoticed and never make it into this blog, but which collectively bestow immense benefit on our lives.  Today, I am thankful for them.

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last minute

Christmas ornaments

Photo Credit: James Hawkins; Licence: Public Domain

In past years, despite the faithful nagging of my wife, despite my own distaste for crowds, despite the promises I had made myself in prior years, I have always left holiday shopping to the last minute.

It’s not like I have a lot to do.  Both our extended families, having found that the prospect of purchasing for everyone fostered a sentiment of bitterness about giving (which ran rather contrary to the whole spirit of the season), have opted — and I daresay, after a good amount of urging on my part — to adopt a gift exchange approach.  Each person draws or is assigned a single name and purchases a $50 gift for that single person.  It has restored the proper atmosphere of the holidays in our homes, has eliminated begrudging gift-buying, has reduced the pure commercialism of the season, and has eradicated the nauseating surplus of impractical “junk” we don’t need.

My wife takes care of purchasing all the gifts for the kids, which she usually has finished by May.

Sandra and I do not purchase individual gifts for each other but instead have a tradition of taking each other away for a weekend in January or February.  We don’t get away together very often, so it really is the most meaningful gift we can give each other.

As a result of these traditions, I am only responsible for two gifts and, frankly, I rarely even have to do that, as Sandra has an endearing penchant for returning home from a mid-October shopping trip with a grin on her face and a declaration that she found a gift for So-and-So.  “I thought I was purchasing for So-and-So this year,” I’ll comment quizzically.  “You are!” she replies proudly.

That usually leaves me nothing but Sandra’s stocking to take care of, and store cameras typically capture me dashing in frantically on December 23rd or 24th, an expression of frustration on my face.  So much for holiday cheer.

This year, I learned my lesson, and finished all of my holiday shopping in October.

Just kidding.

did, however, go a day earlier — today, December 22nd — and I did adopt a few practices which very legitimately removed all stress from the experience.  Having tested these practices, I want to pass the knowledge on.

So, today, I’m stepping away from my “Today, I am grateful for…” recipe in favour of something a little different.

Behold, I give you the 11 Tips for Surviving Last-Minute Holiday Shopping.  Why 11, you ask?  Read on.

Tip 1. Don’t leave holiday shopping to the last minute.

I anticipate you will feel a little cheated by that one, which is why I will produce 10 more.  That said, if you remain faithful to Tip 1, you can ignore the rest.  Happy Holidays and I hope you’ll come back for tomorrow’s post: Little Graces.

Still here?  Figured as much. Let’s continue.

Tip 2. Estimate how much time you will need to do everything you need to do, and then double it.  I find myself always getting angry at the delays. I’m screaming at drivers who don’t accelerate as soon as the light turns green, I’m tapping my foot impatiently at the person ahead of me in line who is confirming the price everything against the flyer, etc.  If you block off ample time and don’t waste it with procrastination, you won’t feel rushed.

Tip 3. Patronize local, independent businesses. They need your business more than the conglomerates, and because everyone else is at Walmart and the like, the independent businesses aren’t as busy.  Less busy = less stress.

Tip 4. Try to go to stores that don’t have shopping carts. It seems trivial but, really, the chaos of holiday shopping can bring out the worst in people, and those shopping carts can quickly turn into vehicular weapons.  Steer clear of those and you can avoid frustration at shopping cart traffic jams and avoid injury too.

Tip 5. “Brain shop” before you shop. Try not to take the approach of wandering around a store trying to find stuff. If you’re leaving shopping to the last minute, spend your time in traffic on your commute home from work in the days leading up to the holidays by thinking about what you are going to purchase. Then, see if you can find out online who has those items. It will make battling store traffic a lot easier and faster if you know exactly what you’re getting at the store and can just go in and get it.

Tip 6. Have alternatives. Don’t rely on an item being at the store or at the price you expected it to be. If you show up and it is not there, or three times as expensive, you won’t feel so much frustration or anger if you have a “back-up.”

Tip 7. If you’re able, walk to the stores, or take the bus or, if you drive, park far away from the store entrance. A good portion of my last-minute shopping stress comes from fighting other drivers for those parking spots near the store entrance.  Today, I parked way at the back of the parking lot and walked.  I enjoyed the walk, and never had to fight anyone for the parking spot.

Tip 8. Smile, and be helpful. I kept a smile on my face throughout all of my shopping today. The effect was two-fold: (a) studies have shown that the very act of smiling makes the person smiling feel happier (it works); (b) when you smile at everyone, you find that a good number of them smile back. Everyone wins. Being helpful takes it a step further. If you see someone struggling with taking shopping bags to their car, or someone who doesn’t know where something is, offer to help. That’s what the holidays are all about, right?

Tip 9. If possible, shop without children. I know. This falls into the same category as, “and while you’re at it, I’d like a pony.”  No matter how bad you expect it to be, shopping with children right before Christmas WILL ALWAYS BE WORSE THAN YOU EXPECT IT TO BE. If you have generous friends, family, or an available babysitter, don’t guilt yourself out of asking for their help.  Maybe they’re too busy to provide their help, but it can’t hurt to ask.  Don’t forget to give a small token of thanks for their help: bring back a coffee, or offer to make them dinner, etc.

Tip 10. Be charitable. Organizations like The Salvation Army always have donation kettles at places where people shop. If you can spare a dollar, two, five, ten, twenty, it finishes your shopping trip nicely to deposit it in the kettle and know that someone else’s holiday will be a little happier because of you.

One last thing: Shopping doesn’t have to be done in stores. Make a gift for someone, give something you already have.  At my youngest’s last birthday, my niece very proudly gave him one of her favourite stuffed animals.  Also I, for one, would much prefer to open a card that informs me that someone else in need has benefitted from the giving, than to unwrap baubles.  Donate to a local charity and let the person know that the gift you gave them is that someone else has been made happier, or safer, or healthier.  Will some of those recipients think you’ve “ripped them off?”  Yes, some will.  Tough luck for them.  Like I tell my kids: that warm feeling you get in your belly when you do something good or right is better than any reward in the world; and it is the very essence of this holiday season.

an austere beauty

skyscraper

Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Nature has the power to humble us. As much as the ravages of natural disasters are tragic, they also remind us that we do not own this planet, we will never overcome it, and our abuses will never go unpunished.  But there is also something astounding in the ingenuity of human achievement.  The universe gives us gravity; humanity responds with bridges, towering skyscrapers, and planes.  Process the concept of taking an 85 metric tonne hunk of metal and getting it to lift off the ground and fly it at speeds over 500 mph at 30,000-40,000 ft. If that doesn’t take your breath away, few things will.

I love nature and, if my life ambitions can be boiled down to a select few, moving further away from cities would be high on the list.  But I love the culture one finds it cities too and so I am drawn to them as well.  Let me find a place to live surrounded with trees and lakes and rivers, with mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets, with immense mountains and enchanted vistas, but let me be close enough to the city to see the marvels that one finds there.

While attending a conference for work this past weekend, I was simultaneously appalled at the dearth of green space and in awe of the vast network of towering monuments to human achievement.  It is not that I think skyscrapers and overlapping overpasses are the greatest testament to what humanity has accomplished.  The growth of compassion and philanthropy would be more valuable evidence.  But, regardless of your personal beliefs, humans were in some sense delivered into the world innocent, ignorant, and naive.  With observation they learned, with creativity they explained, with tenacity they tested, and with ingenuity they created.  They created the wheel, and bridges, and buildings, and music, and medicine, and trains, and cars, and planes, and transistors, and microchips, and… and then they took it a step further.  They didn’t just build something practical: they created art.  Engineers fought physics, architects made it aesthetic; scientists produced technology, designers made it alluring.  There is a beauty in that.  Sometimes it is an austere, cold beauty, but it is a beauty nevertheless.

Today, I am thankful for human ingenuity.  It has sometimes led to terrible outcomes, but overall our world is an incredible place to live simply because of the power of the human mind to evolve the most fantastical idea into reality.

ordinary heroes

building collapse

Photo Credit: Tannoy; Licence: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

Many months ago, I stumbled upon the Carnegie Hero Fund, a fund started by wealthy industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who wanted to honour civilian heroes.

The fund was founded in 1904, and the stories of the numerous awardees of the Carnegie Medal are truly inspirational.  Spend a day reading or listening to them and your heart will be full.  Don’t forget to stock up on tissues.  They are the stories of people who have risked their own lives to save others, many times people they did not even know.

Out of all the selfishness in the world, it’s moving to see so many people who become heroes when their circumstances call them to action.

I can’t share all the stories, so I will share two:

On 17 August 1953, Theodore Henderson (aged 39) was fixing a flat at the side of a highway in Florida, when a 19-year-old woman drove by, lost control of her vehicle, slid off the road, and landed upside-down in a 12 ft. deep murky canal.  Henderson arrived to see the tires of the vehicle slip below the surface of the water. Avoiding an 8 ft. long alligator near by, he swam into the canal and managed to open a door, but the car shifted and the door closed on two of his fingers. He yanked free, tearing a tip off one and breaking the other.  He swam back to the bank, grabbed a tire iron, then swam back down to the vehicle and smashed the rear window.  After swimming to the top to take a breath, he swam back down, dragged her out, and swam to the bank, where she recovered.

On 17 November 1960, Joseph Granahan was relaxing in a bar when he saw clouds of dust.  A building had been recently demolished, but the foundation of the adjacent tenement building had not been adequately protected and the building was collapsing.  When Granahan arrived, all the tenants had managed to escape, except one elderly woman named Helen Giles, who was screaming for help from the fourth floor.  Granahan did not know the woman, but he kicked out the glass panel of the front door and climbed the stairs.  When he reached the fourth floor, the power went out and the building shook.  He managed to find his way to the apartment and carried Giles down the four flights of stairs, with the staircase pulling away from the wall as he descended the last flight.  Moments after he had exited the building with Giles, the entire building collapsed into rubble.

Today, I am thankful for heroes.  We live in a world of survival.  Everyone is committed to his or her own interests.  And yet, when circumstances call for it, sometimes ordinary people become heroes. It’s the type of thing that restores my faith in humanity.

The Peggy Project

Seven years ago, I was couple of weeks into a new job when I met Peggy.  She worked in administration and was generally acknowledged as being the most unpleasant person in the organization.  I was encouraged to avoid her as much as possible.

My first few encounters with Peggy left me feeling that the consensus among my co-workers was startlingly accurate.  I was fortunate, though, in that my job did not bring me into contact with her a great deal.

One day, while passing her in the corridor, I made a snap decision.

“Hi, Peggy!” I said with a broad smile. “How are you?”

She looked at my coldly and walked right by without uttering a word.

The next time I passed her:

“Hey, Peggy! It’s great to see you! How have you been?”

…and so on.  My idea was this: either Peggy is really a softy at heart and I just need to break through her icy exterior by making her feel liked, or Peggy is really as evil as everyone believes and being effervescently cheery will annoy the hell out of her.  Either way, I win.

The first few times I did this, Peggy responded coldly.  After that, I managed to get a mumbled hello.  Within a few months, she was smiling back and asking how I was in return.  And a few months after that, she was stopping to have a chat with me.

Clearly, Peggy wasn’t evil.  Possibly afraid of getting hurt or rejected, she had decided to be the first to reject others and prevent anyone from getting close.  As anyone can guess, this was successful in preventing her from being hurt by someone she trusted, but didn’t make her any less miserable.  Showing interest in her helped build trust, and the guard walls were gradually dismantled.

grumpy old man illustration

Illustration Credit: Author Unknown; Licence: Public Domain

Since then, I’ve tried the same approach with several other people, and I came to call it all an extension of “The Peggy Project.”  The same result has always been achieved.  The most recent success was with a server at a coffee shop I frequent for my daily java fix.  This woman just never smiled.  Now not only does she smile, but she smiles a lot, and she has one of the most fabulous smiles I’ve ever seen, which makes me happy in turn.

I haven’t done anything special, and I haven’t changed anyone.  I wish I could say that I invested more energy in trying to show interest in everyone I interact with, but that is most definitely an area on which I need to build.  Maybe I had some impact on the change in the coffeeshop server’s outward personality, maybe I didn’t.  It’s entirely possible that she was just going through a rough period in her life when I first began interacting with her, and later got through it.  But I’d like to think that showing her that no amount of rancor on her part was going to dissuade me from being pleasant to her played at least a small role.

I don’t encourage this approach for someone who is just having a bad day.  But if it’s a chronically cranky curmudgeonly crab, put your Peggy Project into high gear! 🙂

Today, I am thankful that people are always so much more than the sum of their outward behaviours, so exceedingly different than the “person” they present to us at any moment in time.

I believe the key to unlocking those hidden complexities is to be genuine and show interest.

What do you think?  Or, better yet, have you tried The Peggy Project approach?  How did it go for you? Please tell me in the Comments.  

nut house

For any of you who read my blog posts and think, “this guy needs to get a day job,” I’m happy to report I already have one. 🙂

I work in the mental health sector, and my experiences have run from one extreme — “some days, I can’t believe they pay me, I love this job so much” — to another — “if I spend another second here, I’m going to need to be put in a straightjacket.”

I first need to say that my risky choice of title is not meant to be disrespectful.  I will tell you about Linda (name changed).  She is one of the most difficult people I’ve ever worked with, and also one of my favourites.  She has a sense of humour about her mental health, and I see that as a positive.  I suppose some could argue that joking about mental illness might trivialize it and diminish its severity, but I have found that when people who have mental illness joke about it, it tends to put people at ease.  If a person feels that someone with a mental illness can speak comfortably about their illness, that person is more likely to ask questions and learn something.  I feel that having a sense of humour about mental illness — when used effectively and respectfully — can help to break down stigmas.

Things weren’t going very well for Linda and it became necessary for her to stay in the psychiatric hospital for a while.  Like any environment where people come together — school, camp, retirement residence — there is always a good share of drama.  I went to visit Linda and she began telling me all about her last few days in the hospital and all of the antics she had witnessed.  She summarized the experience by saying, “it’s like a nut house in here.”  Then a little impish grin crossed her lips and she observed, “well, it is a nut house.”

Another time, while consulting with a psychiatrist, the psychiatrist asked her if she “hears voices.”

“All the time,” she responded without hesitation. “I’m hearing yours right now.”

The title I selected for this post is meant to represent that, sometimes, people with mental illness need to be able to joke about it.  Some days, it’s the only way to cope.

sad man and rain

Photo Credit: Jiri Hodan; Licence: Public Domain

The hard days are made harder by seeing people crippled by depression or terrorized by delusions.  I’ve watched helplessly while people have made catastrophic decisions when they weren’t thinking properly, only to discover the gravity of those choices later.

Sometimes, my colleagues and I are easy targets for anger and agitation.  I’ve been viciously screamed at and had my life threatened.  I haven’t been assaulted, though some of my coworkers have.  And with all I have experienced, I know it has been even tougher for most of my coworkers whose positions have deposited them at the head of the front lines.

Another woman, Melanie (name changed), used to call me almost every day when I worked with her, and tell me how I was victimizing her by not complying with her every unreasonable demand.  No conversation ended without her tearfully screaming at me.  I felt like I needed Xanax every time I spoke to her.

These experiences understandably have caused me frustration. But in those moments when I am ready to pull out what little hair I have left, I always try to remind myself: imagine what it’s like living inside Melanie’s head for a day.  To be so consumed by illness that everyone has been scared away.  To feel afraid, victimized, isolated, unheard, unloved.

Today, I am thankful that my life has been touched by severe mental illness, so that I can be more grateful for not having severe mental illness myself.

Has your life been touched by mental illness?  Please tell me about in the Comments.

patronus

I am a capitalist… with a few socialist ideologies.  I gather that is sort of like being a vampire who doesn’t like the taste of blood.

[I’ll interject here to note that, if you think — from the title of this post — that I’m going to be talking about how to fight off Dementors, you’re about to be really disappointed.]

I think socialism is a really beautiful idea.  I can get behind the from each according to his ability, to each according to his need philosophy that summarizes socialism.  But socialism fails when it runs up against a universal constant: greed.  Whether it is a desire for money, a desire for power, or a desire for fame, I feel that any human culture can only provide socialism barren, infertile ground for growth, and that it is only through tyranny — a greater evil than capitalism — that socialism can be sustained.

My golden compromise is to espouse the ideals of social responsibility, which I will oversimplify as: rich people care more.

In ancient Rome, when a slave was freed by his master, a patron-client relationship was often forged.  It was understood that a wealthy master was bound to provide for his former slave in some capacity.  Similarly, I feel that the haves of our society have a responsibility to give to the have-nots.  By haves, I don’t mean millionaires; I refer to those who do not struggle to put food on their tables, those who can afford a family vacation, etc.  When I write have-nots, I might mean the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the disabled; I do not mean the lazy.

The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome

Title: Martyrdom of St. Lawrence (1592); Artistic Credit: Pellegrino Tibaldi

Have you heard the legend of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence of Rome?  It’s an inspiring story.  Upon the death of Pope Sixtus, St. Lawrence was ordered to turn over to the Prefect of Rome the riches of the church for which Lawrence was deacon.  Lawrence requested three days to comply with the instruction.  He proceeded to distribute the riches of the church to the poor.  Then, on the third day, he went before the Prefect accompanied by the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the suffering and said, “these are the true treasures of the church.”  For his audacity and irreverence, he was gruesomely martyred.

Today, St. Lawrence is a symbol of charity.  He reminds us that, no matter a person’s lot in life, that person deserves love, respect, care, and to have certain basic human needs met.

Today, I am thankful for philanthropy.  Whether it comes in the form of a few coins tossed into the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas; a sandwich given to someone who hasn’t eaten; a warm smile given to the marginalized; an anonymous act of kindness.  I’m also grateful for the more headline-catching acts of millionaires and billionaires giving hoards of money to charities.  Even if the money is essentially pocket change in comparison to the donor’s amassed wealth, it’s still an amount that will benefit others immensely and an amount the donor could just as easily have kept.

Charitable acts renew my sometimes dwindling faith in humanity, and instill in me a feeling of “oneness” with those around me: my companions on this tiny tilting blue planet in the dark expanse of space.

Do you have a story about charity?  Please share it with me in the Comments.

health revisited

I am writing this post as part of a series on gratitude for health, in its various forms. It is a continuation of sorts from my very first post.

In 1830, a shopkeeper and his wife living in what is now the Westphalia region of Germany welcomed the birth of their son, Abraham Jacobi. Impoverished, the parents worked indefatigably, saved their money, and sacrificed a great deal to put their son through school. Their efforts paid off and Jacobi earned his medical degree in 1851. After fleeing Germany to avoid arrest for promoting political and social reform, Jacobi emigrated to the United States. His early contributions to the New York Medical Journal helped established pediatrics as a medical speciality. Then, nine years after obtaining his medical degree, he was hired by the New York Medical College and held the first medical position in North America that focused on childhood diseases.

Pediatrics is a relatively young discipline and, at the time it was established, it represented a departure from mainstream medicine. It is not that physicians in North America didn’t treat children, and not even that they didn’t focus their practices on treating children. A pediatric hospital for orphans and poor children had been established in Philadelphia about five years before Jacobi accepted his position at the New York Medical College, and even that was certainly not the first children’s hospital in the world. What was unique in the establishment of pediatrics was the idea that children’s presentation of certain illnesses was in many ways fundamentally different than the presentation in adults.

Boy with Stethoscope

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

There is nothing sadder than illness or death in children. The idea of pediatrics and especially children’s hospitals is one for which I hold a great deal of admiration and gratitude.  Someone had the idea of bringing together the best in the field of pediatrics and placing them in one place so that very sick children could get the best care possible.  It was part of larger movement that acknowledged that children should be afforded some greater protection from the ills of the world.

Today, I am thankful for the field of pediatrics and for children’s hospitals, because they have saved my son (twice), have saved the children of people I know, and they save more children every day.

Have you had a positive experience with children’s hospitals? Please share your thoughts in the Comments.

goodness

Many of you are by now aware of a mass shooting that occurred in Aurora, Colorado earlier this week.  If you’re not, I apologize for making you aware, but I won’t offer any more publicity for the person believed to have committed this heinous crime by reiterating details here. It is sufficient to say that many happy and hopeful lives were cut short in a moment of terror.

Our newspapers have seen no shortage of mass or public shootings in the past year, or stories of filmed dismemberment, with body parts being mailed to government offices and schools.  I think I am bothered not so much by the idea that crime continues but that crime is becoming more and more disturbing.

Soldiers Hugging

Photo Credit: D. Myles Culle, Licence: Public Domain (Editorial)

I’ve started trying something new when reading accounts of tragedy. I’ve found that, often, in response to tragedy, humanity’s brightest colours shine. Foes put away enmity; people become more charitable and generous of spirit; those around us hold their loved ones a little closer.  After the shooting in Colorado, as police worked to remove a hoard of explosives from the suspect’s apartment, neighbours cooked the officers food and brought them water.  It was a small act, but an example of the way that a community comes together in response to tragedy.

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion… love actually is all around.   — Hugh Grant in Love Actually (2003)

Despite all the horrors people might perpetrate against others, I do believe that there is considerably more good in the world than evil.  Today, I am thankful for the goodness that exists.

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