The world can be a scary place. I feel like I’m overwhelmed with negative news and stories of suffering in our society and powerless to make any of it better. I get stuck thinking that the only way that I can make a difference is if I quit my job and devote my life to something heroic like recycling all of the plastic in the ocean or finding a way to negotiate peace between all nations. However, those ideas are so big (and honestly not that tenable), and I get kind of seasick. I’m also not the best at mediating fights — just ask my brothers and sister…#potstirrer). So, I get discouraged and end up not doing anything. But this year, I decided to approach giving back in the way that I approach the rest of my life – by taking baby steps. I know that I can’t fix the whole world, but I can try to improve the lives of people around me by making these small sacrifices.
Delay instant gratification
We live in a world constantly begging for our attention. Our phones are buzzing, our computers are pinging, and it can be so satisfying to immediately find out what’s happening that we ignore the people who are right in front of us. When we do that, we make others feel unimportant, “less than,” and like whatever is happening in our phone is more interesting than they are — even if it’s just a coupon to buy fly fishing equipment. (How do I get on these mailing lists?!) Sacrifice that instant gratification by putting your phone away and paying full attention to your friend.
I recently went out to dinner with a friend, and in the middle of a lovely conversation, my phone started to buzz in my purse, she turned to me and said a little dejectedly, “It’s okay, you can get it,” and I said, “Sweetheart, there is nothing that is more important than you and this conversation right now.” Her face lit up, and I could tell the gesture let her know that she was my number one priority. My choice had the added bonus of making me feel incredibly present in that moment.
Make yourself uncomfortable
I live in Brooklyn, where I’m constantly surrounded by people, and whenever I’m following my own advice and undistracted by my phone, I can see that there are a lot of people around me who might need a little human connection. That might be a smile, giving up my seat to an elderly person on the subway, or offering to help someone when it looks like they need it. Maybe buying a sandwich and a coffee for a homeless person. Or it could be something even smaller, like helping a mother with her baby in a stroller climb two flights of stairs out of the subway station. Bonus: I got to laugh and smile at her beautiful baby the whole way up. I felt nervous to offer help, because I didn’t want to offend her, but it made her day easier, and it made me feel so good!
Take yourself out of your comfort zone. Choose to go to the protest that you read about, even though you don’t love crowds, or to volunteer at a phone bank for a candidate that you support, even if that means that you might get hung up on a few times. Being brave and breaking out of your bubble to help and support others will not only have an impact on the world, it’ll have a big impact on you!
Skip buying lunch once a week
Many of us put off donating to charity for the day when we have the money to spare. One way to get into the habit of giving is to skip buying lunch, and either bring your lunch to work or fast, and then donate that money to a nonprofit you really care about. You’re reducing the waste that comes from getting food to go, and a homemade meal is usually healthier than a lunch you purchased. Plus, you’re also supporting a really worthwhile charity.
I’ve also made a decision to support companies and brands that have a positive social impact on the world – like buying shoes from Tom’s, sunglasses from Diff or a bed from Leesa — all of these brands give their products to people in need. They sometimes cost more money than I usually spend on the same type of product, but I feel good supporting a company that makes the world better a better place.
We all lead busy lives, and more often than not, the weekend becomes a shining beacon of relaxation and fun that we look forward to all week long. But the weekend also provides us with the time to give back to others who aren’t as fortunate. Organizations like Meals on Wheels, Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, or Go Walk Shelter Dogs only ask you for an hour of your time – which would be equivalent to missing brunch with friends, or one or two episodes of that Netflix show you’re bingeing. Giving back on a weekend also has the added benefit of you not seeing that “Are You Still Watching” pop-up, and feeling judged by Netflix. No, Netflix I am not still watching – I’m out there helping people!
I know I have to accept there might not ever be a front page news story that says: “Katie McKenna Babysits for Friends’ Newborn: World Peace Is Achieved!” But I’m happy to say, even though I can’t see the impact of my sacrifices on the world as a whole, I can see the impact on me and the way I see the world. By being intentional, about giving my time, my money, and my attention, what I get in return isn’t just a smile or a kind word, but a deep gratitude for all that I have. So in the face of fear and overwhelming powerlessness, I will take a deep breath, put away my phone, and try to find a way to make someone else’s day better for having me in it.
Originally published on March 29, 2018.