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Rethink the Season of Giving

Rethink the Season of Giving

Rethink the Season of Giving

    Next Thursday, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities across the US will be fully staffed with smiling-faced, happy volunteers eagerly doling out food and other assistance to those whose need is greatest. Families across the country will come together in the spirit of giving, and will return home beaming with pride and contentment, knowing deep in their hearts that they have made a difference. It’s the finest side of American culture, celebrating our own thankfulness by trying to give the less fortunate something to be thankful about.

    Next Friday, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other charities across the US will be understaffed, undersupplied, and underfunded, their staff working tirelessly and selflessly to provide for the basic needs of their constituents. People will go hungry, uncared for, and unsheltered. And the volunteers of Thanksgiving Day will beam with pride and contentment, knowing deep in their hearts that they have made a difference.

    I love the next 6 weeks, the holiday season between now and the start of the new year. I’m a Jew, and an atheist one at that, but still: the Christmas season has a deep resonance for me. (Don’t get me started on Hannukah – it’s a second-string holiday trying desperately to be Christmas, a pleasant enough  Jewish idea gussied up in Christian clothing.) Despite the consumerism and the mall crowds and the annual vaguely anti-Semitic war on “Happy Holidays”, I think the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season really brings out the best in people.

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    But I think too that it leads us astray. In fact, I think it’s all too easy to get so caught up in the good feelings of the season that we lose sight of the point: giving is not about good feelings! The fact that our charity is seasonal should be a source of shame, not pride. I’m not talking about donating money here – that’s a fine thing to do, but it’s on a whole other level. I’m talking about real, person-to-person giving, about really reaching out and helping our fellow human beings, about enriching others’ lives without worrying about enriching our own.

    By all means, give this holiday season. Volunteer, drop toys in the Toys for Tots bins, throw change in the Salvation Army Santa’s kettle. But keep these points in mind, too:

    1. People need your help year-round.

    Two years ago, I wrote a post here that suggested having your kids pick from their old toys things they want to give to the less fortunate kids who won’t have anything or Christmas. Turns out, I was wrong about that. Not about the spirit of it, but about the timing. As Sophie wrote in the comments,

    As someone who works in a homeless shelter, I can tell you that agencies such as ours are FLOODED with donations in November and December. Last year enough brand new toys/games/electronics were donated for our agency to have given 20-25 gifts to EACH of our children under under 18. But homeless children do not need so many toys – for one thing, where on earth would they store them? They do URGENTLY need warm clothes, shoes, and school supplies – best supplied in the form of Walmart gift cards, to give their homeless parents the dignity of purchasing their own gifts for their own children.

    Turns out, the toy drives your local organizations carry out are pretty successful. In December. When May comes around, though, shelters have little on hand to give out. Sick kids on hospitals, children in battered women’s shelters who have fled their homes in the middle of the night, and others might like a toy or two, but nobody’s donating in the middle of the year – and most non-profits can’t afford to store their December bounty year-round.

    The same goes for other forms of volunteering – there are homeless, disabled, ill, poor, and otherwise hurting people who need help year-round. Maybe your season of giving could be Labor Day, Memorial Day, Arbor Day, May Day, or just Some Random Day, when your help is really needed.

    2. The recipients of charity are people with feelings, value, and dignity.

    When I was in college, I was the assistant manager of a thrift store in San Diego. One of my duties was to accept donations at the rear of the store. I can’t tell you how many times people pulled up, popped their trunk, and proceeded to basically clean their trunks into our donation bins. Torn clothes, oily rags, half-bottles of motor oil, torn magazines, and other refuse were common “donations”, none of which we could use or even accept – it had to go straight into the dumpster. But here’s the thing: if I objected that I could not accept their donations (seriously, a lot of that stuff is actually considered toxic waste under the law and had no business even being on the premises!) I was berated – these people, see, had given out of the goodness of their hearts these wondrous gifts, and who was I to suggest that the poor were too good for their gifts?

    This is backhanded charity – it’s like stabbing someone and expecting them to thank you for the knife. Poor people don’t need the dregs of your life, whether in the form of your material cast-offs or your time, emotion, and advice. Being poor means lacking resources, not lacking humanity – if you can’t connect with the people you aim to serve, as people, then nobody is the better for your alleged charity.

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    3. Consider the gift of autonomy.

    Notice Sophie’s advice above about giving gift cards and allowing poor people the dignity to purchase the things they need. One of the resources most lacking for impoverished people is autonomy. The greatest hardship of poverty is the way it limits you – often in ways that create greater poverty, like the way stores in poor neighborhoods often charge higher prices than stores in better-off neighborhood, because the poor often lack the transportation options to make meaningful choices about where they shop.

    Think about the way you volunteer of give charity – is there a way you could increase people’s abilities to make their own choices, to follow their own paths, to develop their own abilities? If not, maybe you should think about choosing a different form of assistance.

    4. Only connect.

    Remember that charity is about people, not problems. You may have plenty of ideas about why people are in whatever fix they’re in, and you may feel you know what’s best for them even when they don’t. But frankly, you don’t. If you’re in a position to help, you most likely have no idea what the people you’re helping are going through. Even if you were yourself once in their position, what worked for you might not work for others – don’t forget how big a role luck and circumstances can play.

    Too often, people in a position to help hold themselves apart from the people they hope to assist. And no wonder – for the once-a-year volunteer, there is little time to get to know anyone, let alone really understand what their lives are like. If you can, make a long-term commitment and open yourself up to the lives of the people your charity is aimed at. Get to know people face-to-face, as friends and colleagues and equals.

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    5. Forget you.

    Last but most important, remember, it’s not about you. Yes, it feels good to give, and there’s no point in feeling guilty about that, but don’t do it because it makes you feel good, or because you earn points towards a merit badge or college credit, or because it’s part of your organization’s charter, or for whatever other way that charity benefits you. Do it because you must, because being a giving person is right.

    The Muslims have the better of it on this one: giving is not just a mitzvah (the fulfilling of a Biblical commandment in the Jewish faith) or a Good Work, it’s one of the Five Pillars of Islam, the central defining features of Muslim identity. It’s not just something Muslims do, but something they are.

    We can all learn from that. Find a way to give not just of your wealth – and don’t let the lack of wealth keep you from giving – but of your talents, skills, knowledge, and self. Make giving part of who you are, not just a thing you do.

    And this year, instead of giving during the season of giving and then returning to your “normal life” when you pack away the tree and lights, let the holidays be a starting point to a life of year-round giving.

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    Last Updated on November 5, 2019

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    How to Cultivate Continuous Learning to Stay Competitive

    Assuming the public school system didn’t crush your soul, learning is a great activity. It expands your viewpoint. It gives you new knowledge you can use to improve your life. It is important for your personal growth. Even if you discount the worldly benefits, the act of learning can be a source of enjoyment.

    “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” — Mark Twain

    But in a busy world, it can often be hard to fit in time to learn anything that isn’t essential. The only things learned are those that need to be. Everything beyond that is considered frivolous. Even those who do appreciate the practice of lifelong learning, can find it difficult to make the effort.

    Here are some tips for installing the habit of continuous learning:

    1. Always Have a Book

    It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year or a week to read a book. Always strive to have a book that you are reading through, and take it with you so you can read it when you have time.

    Just by shaving off a few minutes in-between activities in my day I can read about a book per week. That’s at least fifty each year.

    2. Keep a “To-Learn” List

    We all have to-do lists. These are the tasks we need to accomplish. Try to also have a “to-learn” list. On it you can write ideas for new areas of study.

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    Maybe you would like to take up a new language, learn a skill or read the collective works of Shakespeare. Whatever motivates you, write it down.

    3. Get More Intellectual Friends

    Start spending more time with people who think. Not just people who are smart, but people who actually invest much of their time in learning new skills. Their habits will rub off on you.

    Even better, they will probably share some of their knowledge with you.

    4. Guided Thinking

    Albert Einstein once said,

    “Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.”

    Simply studying the wisdom of others isn’t enough, you have to think through ideas yourself. Spend time journaling, meditating or contemplating over ideas you have learned.

    5. Put it Into Practice

    Skill based learning is useless if it isn’t applied. Reading a book on C++ isn’t the same thing as writing a program. Studying painting isn’t the same as picking up a brush.

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    If your knowledge can be applied, put it into practice.

    In this information age, we’re all exposed to a lot of information, it’s important to re-learn how to learn so as to put the knowledge into practice.

    6. Teach Others

    You learn what you teach. If you have an outlet of communicating ideas to others, you are more likely to solidify that learning.

    Start a blog, mentor someone or even discuss ideas with a friend.

    7. Clean Your Input

    Some forms of learning are easy to digest, but often lack substance.

    I make a point of regularly cleaning out my feed reader for blogs I subscribe to. Great blogs can be a powerful source of new ideas. But every few months, I realize I’m collecting posts from blogs that I am simply skimming.

    Every few months, purify your input to save time and focus on what counts.

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    8. Learn in Groups

    Lifelong learning doesn’t mean condemning yourself to a stack of dusty textbooks. Join organizations that teach skills.

    Workshops and group learning events can make educating yourself a fun, social experience.

    9. Unlearn Assumptions

    You can’t add water to a full cup. I always try to maintain a distance away from any idea. Too many convictions simply mean too few paths for new ideas.

    Actively seek out information that contradicts your worldview.

    Our minds can’t be trusted, but this is what we can do about it to be wiser.

    10. Find Jobs that Encourage Learning

    Pick a career that encourages continual learning. If you are in a job that doesn’t have much intellectual freedom, consider switching to one that does.

    Don’t spend forty hours of your week in a job that doesn’t challenge you.

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    11. Start a Project

    Set out to do something you don’t know how. Forced learning in this way can be fun and challenging.

    If you don’t know anything about computers, try building one. If you consider yourself a horrible artist, try a painting.

    12. Follow Your Intuition

    Lifelong learning is like wandering through the wilderness. You can’t be sure what to expect and there isn’t always an end goal in mind.

    Letting your intuition guide you can make self-education more enjoyable. Most of our lives have been broken down to completely logical decisions, that making choices on a whim has been stamped out.

    13. The Morning Fifteen

    Productive people always wake up early. Use the first fifteen minutes of your morning as a period for education.

    If you find yourself too groggy, you might want to wait a short time. Just don’t put it off later in the day where urgent activities will push it out of the way.

    14. Reap the Rewards

    Learn information you can use. Understanding the basics of programming allows me to handle projects that other people would require outside help. Meeting a situation that makes use of your educational efforts can be a source of pride.

    15. Make Learning a Priority

    Few external forces are going to persuade you to learn. The desire has to come from within. Once you decide you want to make lifelong learning a habit, it is up to you to make it a priority in your life.

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    Featured photo credit: Paul Schafer via unsplash.com

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