“I’m trying to change my life, but I don’t know where to start.”
A friend posted this on Facebook recently, and it really resonated with me. There have been so many times in my life when I have wondered what the point was of anything I did, whether I would be noticed or cared for by anyone else.
It took a long time for me to realize that I was asking the wrong questions.
One of the realities, blessings even, of my childhood was that my mother encouraged us kids not to take ourselves too seriously. Whatever we accomplished was fine, but overweening pride was not appropriate. Her variant of Han Solo’s “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky,” was, “That’s nice. Now don’t get a big head.”
Along with that, both my parents demonstrated, more through their actions than through words, the importance of service. Among other things, each of them got involved with Scouting at various points, my mother spent many years volunteering with the local PTA, and my father gave decades of service to AA.
Even more important, they never hesitated to do whatever was needed to care for us and to provide for us. This did not mean luxuries, and often the answer to a question excitedly asked by one of us in the toy aisle of a department store to the question, “Can I have THAT!?,” was an emphatic “NO!” leading to no small measure of sulkiness for the next few hours.
Rather, their care, their other-centeredness, demonstrated itself in more modest, more quotidian ways. Making sure we always had a roof over our heads, food on the table to eat, decent clothes, tuition for schools. Perhaps that protective roof which was expanded to meet the needs of a growing five-child family did not have drywall on the interior for 20 years, perhaps it was more hamburger than steak, perhaps the clothes were often hand-me-downs, and perhaps that tuition came in the form of them filling out Parent Confidential Statements for financial aid. It all got done, though. And they never hesitated. It wasn’t until years later, from my adult perspective, that I realized how much both of them sacrificed, each in their own way, for all of us.
At the same time, by accident a birth, I came of age during the Catholic Church’s flowering of generosity in the immediate post-Vatican II period. I was the only one of us five kids to go to parochial school, and I eagerly embraced the lessons of the 1960s about how God put us on this earth to serve one another.
Eventually, these threads of my life led me to choose the profession I currently practice, pediatric medicine, to help those who are most vulnerable. But it taught me lessons beyond that.
I realized that, rather than asking:
- How will I be noticed?
- How will I be served?
what I needed to be asking was:
- Whom can I help?
- Where can I serve?
Because, even though I get to do much of this in my professional life, I have found that volunteering for causes and organizations I believe in has been one of the most rewarding parts of my life.
Because, when I do this as a volunteer, it is something I give freely without expectation of remuneration or recognition.
And therein lies the happy paradox. When I have felt at my lowest, when I have needed help the most, it helped me to help other people, to see in the eyes of those I serve that I have value.
Beyond that, I have met so many people who remain important in my life — many of whom are among my most cherished friends — through volunteering for advocacy organizations, political campaigns, non-profit organizations, performing arts organizations.
To return to my mother, it was not uncommon for her to reply to my complaints about, well, anything with, “Quit whining. Other people have it worse than you.” While I know she said that mainly to shut me up — and raising five kids, I don’t begrudge her occasional grasping for some peace and quiet — I realized that there was some wisdom in that.
Early in “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens has two gentlemen approach Ebenezer Scrooge who suggest that “At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time.”
Scrooge’s initial response about prisons and workhouses comes from his deep spiritual poverty, something that would be happily remedied within the 24 hours to come as he found his bliss in helping those around him.
Of course, this festive time can also be a time of isolation and loneliness for many of us. I know it has been for me.
But I have also found it to be a time of great opportunity, to reach out, to volunteer, to learn, as Scrooge did, that our greatest joy comes from humbly giving of ourselves to others. And we are lucky enough to be able to learn it without being visited by three ghosts in the middle of the night!
So, if like my friend you are wondering, “I’m trying to change my life, but I don’t know where to start,” I hope you will consider reaching out to help others. Decide whom you would like to serve and where you passion lies. Do some googling. Check out the organizations that fit your interests. Make some calls. And then get out there and help.
I guarantee that the time, the energy, the love you put out into the world will return to you a hundredfold.