Hurricanes in Houston and Puerto Rico. An earthquake near Mexico City. A massacre in Las Vegas. War in Syria. Homelessness right here at home.
Sometimes it’s hard not to be overwhelmed with all the natural and manmade disasters, and it may be even harder to know what to do about any of them in order to help. How can I make an impact? Especially in the face of so many epic, large-scale tragedies, where do I start — if I can start at all?
If you’re like me, when I’m especially moved by the suffering of people somewhere, I’ll give money to a charity like Catholic Relief Services or to my local homeless shelter. I know service providers need my donation, however meager it is, and I’m glad to be able to do something…something is better than nothing, right?
But, especially in these weeks right before Christmas, when I allow myself to feel a little more sentimental than at other times of the year, I’m left with a nagging feeling that I ought do more than just make a donation.
I’ve been pretty blessed, and I feel like I could do more for others.
I have a ton of respect for people who give up everything and move across the world to help. But I’m just not sure that that’s for me, at least right now. So what else could I do?
Here are three steps to lead a more generous life of service that goes beyond giving to charity.
Step 1: Encounter your own poverty
This step sounds like a total cop out. I can hear you asking: ‘Really, the first step to helping other people is to think about myself?’ Well…yes, but stay with me.
Whether we’re materially poor, wealthy, or somewhere in between, we all have unmet needs and longings. Maybe you’re lonely. Or you’re unfulfilled with your work. Or scared about something going on with a loved one. Maybe you’re asking what everything is all about, and you’re not finding satisfying answers.
These are genuine, often swept-under-the-proverbial-rug poverties. They’re categorically different from being chronically hungry or lacking safe shelter, but they’re real, and we would do well not to be anesthetized to them.
I’m not suggesting you compare your poverty to others’. (Don’t do that. Seriously. Nothing good comes from that.) I’m just saying that recognizing where you’re wanting is a good first step to encountering others.
It’s the very human condition of “wanting” that we confront anew during Advent while we recognize that each of us is waiting and longing for more.
Step 2: Be alert to the poverty of those around you
It’s way too easy to convince ourselves that nearly everyone around us has everything together. My Instagram feed is full of people showing off their best moments. But of course that’s a mirage. Poverty is lurking everywhere, though a lot of us — myself included — can be blind to it.
The world is full of people in need. So is your apartment building. So is your next meeting at work, and your next class. So is your family. Some of the people you’ll encounter today may be materially poor: they might be hungry, homeless, or dying. And others who appear to have everything in their lives firing on all cylinders may be inching toward the edge of their hope.
For this step, what I’m suggesting is that we be attentive. Who have you overlooked or walked by without really seeing? Which burdens of those around you have been caught in your blind spots?
Hopefully, by being attentive to the ways you are left wanting (see: Step 1), it will be a little easier to be more sensitive to the needs of those around you. And I’m convinced that the best way to grow in compassion for those suffering all over the world is to increase our sensitivity to the people right in front of us who harbor pains and fears.
Step 3: Meet people who possess poverty, but attend to their riches
This is the hardest step, because it asks us to reach a little bit out of our day-to-day comfort and actually do something.
It’s easy to give a couple dollars to a person on the street. It’s harder — but still not that hard — to buy somebody a sandwich or a bottle of water. But what if we committed to getting to know a person in need once in a while?
Come to know the story of the person who’s asking for money on the street; or the older neighbor who’s trying to make sense of life since her husband died; or the immigrant who is scared of being deported.
Have a conversation. Invite somebody into your home for a meal. Tell somebody about your interests, and listen to theirs.
Entering into a real, genuine relationship with people in your community who are experiencing some sort of difficulty will underscore for you that we are all more than our poverties.
In fact, the story of a life is usually best told when a person can share their gifts, experiences, wisdom, riches. The real shame is that so often we get defined by what we lack and not by what we have. Give somebody a gift by coming to know them for who they really are, and let them come to know you, too.
I think Pope Francis captures this idea beautifully: “We may think of the poor simply as the beneficiaries of our occasional volunteer work, or of impromptu acts of generosity that appease our conscience. However good and useful such acts may be...they ought to lead to a true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life.”
So, I hope you can give what you can to charities — so many of them do such great, important work. But maybe we can go a little deeper this Advent, too, and share the joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties of those we encounter.