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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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