Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat
Would you please to put a penny in an old man's hat
If you haven't got a penny, a ha'penny will do
If you haven't got a ha'penny, God bless you
Traditional Christmas song
This morning when I checked the mail I found three requests from nonprofit organizations. "Giving: refuge, hope, survival," was printed on the front of the request from the UN Refugee Agency, along with a black and white photograph of a distressed child. "Holiday Appeal," showed through a clear window on the request from the CNIB (seeing beyond vision loss) and "2011 Year End Reminder," was printed in red. The Nature Conservancy's offering told potential donors that they could "Turn $1 to $5 for Canadian habitat."
Anyone would be hard pressed to meet these seemingly endless pleas for help that we are inundated with during the holiday season. Don't get me wrong. I agree with St. Francis's statement that, "it is in giving that we receive." However, this year our financial situation is constrained and I have had to be more selective. I am a UNICEF global parent and I also contributed, on my mother's behalf, to a UNICEF program that is designed to provide schooling for children in need, such as the Afghani girl below.
I have also supported WAVA (Women Against Violence Against Women) for many years. This locally-based organization provides counselling, a crisis line, and more for women in the Lower Mainland (Metro Vancouver) who are affected by domestic and sexual violence. This cause resonates for me because I have survived sexual violence myself. That's why when the phone rang the other evening and someone from WAVA was on the other end, I agreed to increase my donation amount. And, if I have any loonies or twoonies, I usually drop one into the Salvation Army donation kettle. Last week, I even helped a man who was bravely trying to sing "Frosty the Snowman" even though he couldn't remember the tune.
Face-to-face giving is the kind of giving I like best. Helping people one at a time isn't particularly effective, in terms of the scope of the world's problems, but it is satisfying. My husband teaches at UBC and our family lives on campus in faculty housing. There is an older man who seems to be living in the Student Union Building (SUB). SUB is open 24/7 and every time I go there, I see him. Most of the time he is sitting in the same chair, reading, often a newspaper that someone has discarded. So, one day I decided to give him a book - a book that I discovered wasn't valuable enough to sell online (I sell books online), but was a perfectly readable book. He seemed pleased to receive the unexpected gift. And so, over time, I've given him many books and we have chatted about reading, the weather, and other trivial things. This year, on Thanksgiving, I drove over to SUB and brought him food on an enamel-wear plate I use for camping. There was turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, potatoes, and pumpkin pie. He seemed both delighted and puzzled. "Why are you doing this?" he asked. "Because I want to," I said and he nodded his head in response, as though it answered a question he had been thinking about for a while.
Why was I doing it? Well, for one thing, I know that most homeless people are invisible. I don't know for sure that this man is homeless, but it seems likely. I know what it feels like to be invisible. I was invisible to the nurses in the delivery room when they took my daughter away - or at least they behaved as though I were - even though I was weeping and calling out, "no, no." Being invisible hurts. That's why I stop to acknowledge my reading friend's existence because I know that few people do. I went through a time in my life when I needed kindness as badly as I needed food or water. And so now when I see someone who appears to be in need, it is hard to turn away. And that is why, for me, giving is also receiving.
Experience has also taught me that those who understand what it is not to have enough are more in tune with the needs of others. During the past several years, I have spent quite a bit of time in my former hometown: Ypsilanti, Michigan. Ypsilanti is hurting these days. Many people are unemployed and many houses have been foreclosed on. Still, I found that, more often than not, people were quick with kind words for each other. Not surprisingly, a recent study has shown that the poor are more generous than the rich. The Starbucks that I went to, in that economically-depressed area, had a tip jar that usually had as many one dollar bills in it as coins.
It seems like I've wandered off the path of Christmas and the holiday season, and maybe I have. I enjoy choosing gifts for family and friends, but I also realize that, all too often, these gifts are luxuries, not necessities. That's why I like to stop and ponder the true meaning of "giving" and rethink my choices.
What are some of the ways you find to give to others during the holidays or year-round? Do you think that the over-commercialization of Christmas encourages giving or burns-out the impulse to give?