It is easy to fall prey to cynicism and despair. Greed and cruelty—and their offspring, deprivation and suffering—abound. A glance at any newspaper or newscast makes their dark ubiquity clear. In such an environment, the simple act of getting out of bed in the morning becomes an act of faith and defiance.
Some acclimate to the darkness and turn inward, becoming disaffected and disconnected. Others shrug off the shadows and turn outward, striving to generate light and hope. It is not easy.
This past January, confronted with turning 50 years of age and feeling the weight of my unrealized ambitions and narrowing days, I succumbed for a time to despair. I retreated from the world—not for the first time. On an earlier occasion, I captured my dour mood in a poem:
The Pull of the Cave
It is happening again.
With mute apology,
the land drains of color and light,
the air sharpens its icy teeth,
the body slows.
I feel little now
but the pull of the cave
and the long sleep that awaits me.
Somewhere in the wild,
by a chill stream,
a bear pauses in its feeding
and feels it, too,
tugging at the rough thatch of its fur,
stirring in the thick timbers of its bones.
What hope or thought of resisting does it have
or, for that matter, do I?
On this more recent occasion, I resisted the pull of the cave. I clambered towards the light. What freed me from my self-imposed exile was an act of personal benevolence. On my 50th birthday, I visited my local food bank and distributed 50 dollars to 50 people in need. The experience was energizing and satisfying, moving and humbling. Simply by giving of myself, I cast away the gloom and managed to reconnect not only with those in my community but also with my own humanity. It was amazing.
Since then, I have been promoting benevolence at every opportunity. Last week, my friend Julie, who is also a social worker, donated $1,200 to Berkshire Hills Music Academy, which is “a private post-secondary school providing young adults who have learning or developmental disabilities the opportunity to live in a collegiate setting and acquire independent living skills while developing their musical potential.” In March, my friend’s son, Alex, turned 11 years old, and I helped him to celebrate by gathering signatures on a large birthday card. For every signature that he obtained (in his classroom, at my workplace, at local shopping venues), I donated a dollar to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. We dropped off a check for $105 the following week:
Benevolence is an antidote to cynicism and despair. It presents a way out of the cave. Others are catching on to this idea, as reported yesterday by National Public Radio:
It’s a safe bet that the last thing you’d do after losing your job is give away money. Reed Sandridge was laid off last year as a director of a nonprofit group in Washington, D.C. The 36-year-old came up with a pet project to keep him busy while he looked for work. He calls it the “Year of Giving.”
Every day, Sandridge walks up to a stranger and gives away $10. So far, he’s handed out close to $1,200. [link]
Reed Sandridge is documenting his efforts on a blog that is worth visiting. When asked why he has chosen to devote himself to a Year of Giving, he told NPR, “I really wanted to concentrate on doing something that would just give me an opportunity to interact with my community and maybe inspire others.” He seems to be doing just that and, no doubt, has been enriched immeasurably by the experience. I know just how he feels.