Other People’s Problems

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On Everyday Charity and 9.0 Earthquakes.

One day on Facebook I asked my friends: “What can I do to help you?”

It was one of those days when I had some unexpected free time.

I sincerely hoped that someone would ask me to make dinner for them or watch their kids or juggle their seven balls for them so they could lie on the ground and watch the clouds. Sure, I am busy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to help out my friends in return when I can.

I got many responses, but they were mostly in the non-specific range of  “how thoughtful!” to “what? You don’t have enough to do right now LOL?” No one asked for anything in particular and I clearly didn’t know WHAT to do, so I gave up.

I ended up watching “America’s Next Top Model” instead.

The Problems We Share

My 16-year-old niece Shona, this weekend, was laying with her head on her Nana’s lap, listening to her elders discuss the disaster in Japan. She broke in: “It seems like a lot of this kind of stuff has happened in my lifetime. Is there more distasters now, or have these bad things always been going on?”

Her family was quick to reassure her that the light-speed of our media has made it much easier to internalize other people’s suffering, and to make that a part of our own everyday experience.

“In the past,” I said, hoping to sound like a proper old auntie, “before telegraph and texting, we only shared such news with our neighbors… A five-mile radius might have been the extent of our reach.”

It’s a good problem to have…

… to have the time and the resources to help. But I know as soon as I have the time, I often find myself tangled up in questions about:

  • what to do
  • how much to do
  • who am I missing
  • what is appropriate
  • who have I forgotten
  • will my company match the donation
  • why bother

So, then, I often just end up watching, well, “Desperate Housewives” and thinking: “I’ll send my $80 to NPR in the next fund drive.”

The Quality of Help

I want to be more cognizant of others and their needs. It’s on my “I Don’t Ever Plan To Empty This Bucket List.”

So I found this great list from Zen Habit’s Leo Babauta called “25 Ways to Help a Fellow Human Being Today” that I think is a good guide for when I am feeling generous, or just all-around conflicted about charity.

Leo notes that: “what we must guard against is the tendency … (of) individuality to have us focused on ourselves to the exclusion of our fellow human beings.”

He gives a wonderful argument for the improvement of MY life, based on the improvement of yours.

A few of my favorites from Leo’s list are:

8. Comfort someone in grief. Often a hug, a helpful hand, a kind word, a listening ear, will go a long way when someone has lost a loved one or suffered some similar loss or tragedy.

We don’t allow ourselves to really grieve in our culture. So if you meet a friend who has lost a loved one or a pet, I think it is so important to listen to them, to nod and to touch them, and to tell them “it’s ok to cry.”

11. Lend your ear. Often someone who is sad, depressed, angry, or frustrated just needs someone who will listen. Venting and talking through an issue is a huge help.

The friends who have done this for me are the friends whom I carry in my heart everywhere.

14. Do a chore. Something small or big, like cleaning up or washing a car or doing the dishes or cutting a lawn.

When the kids first came to live with us, our community of friends from church made food for us, and came to the house to help us, even went and bought them pajamas and underwear. It was so wonderful.

16. Send a nice email. Just a quick note telling someone how much you appreciate them, or how proud you are of them, or just saying thank you for something they did.

Don’t you love it when you get a note for “no reason” to tell you how great you are?

 

Elizabeth Howard

Elizabeth writes literary non-fiction, haiku, cultural rants, and Demand Poetry in order to forward the cause of beautiful writing. She teaches and speaks about the rhetorical impact of beautiful writing. A recent transplant to Connecticut, she calls London, Kansas City, and Iowa home. 

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  3 comments for “Other People’s Problems

  1. J, Connecticut
    March 14, 2011 at 2:01 pm

    I know I appreciate your offers of help, even if I couldn’t think of what I need right now. But the offers themselves are a gift you give.

  2. March 14, 2011 at 7:00 pm

    This is a lovely post. I’ve had two friends lose parents in the last couple of weeks so the “be kind to those who are grieving” really hit home. :)

    • March 15, 2011 at 6:48 am

      Regina, so sorry about the loss of beloved people in you and your friends’ lives. Everything is so fast. We need more time to slow and look into people’s eyes.

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