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Healing Through Service: 20 Ways to Help Others (and Yourself)

Woman and a Kitten

“To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.” ~Abraham Lincoln

A feral cat tempered my most recent bout with depression. I wasn’t seriously depressed, nothing like the debilitating times in my past, but I had a fairly strong case of the blues.

It was just before Thanksgiving, that time of year when people across America break bread with family and friends, and I was feeling sorry for myself.

I missed the gatherings we used to have when I was married. My ex-husband and I both loved to cook and every year we put together a gourmet feast for a group of family and friends.

This year I would be alone.

I live on the high desert and winters are harsh. Outside a sixty mile an hour wind was howling and a blanket of snow covered the ground. It didn’t help my mood.

When I opened the door to let my dog out to pee, I heard a high-pitched mewling. From the frozen hillside a scrawny white and black cat came crawling out of the sage. Its fur was matted and its ribs showed.

When I moved toward it, it retreated with a hiss. My own calico eats well, so I borrowed some of her Fancy Feast, a cup of dry food, and a bowl of water and set it outside.

Before long the cat was a regular visitor, but what was more gratifying is within a week it had filled out, and while its tail was still matted, its fur began to look glossier.

The cat, however, showed no appreciation. It continued to spit and growl when I brought its food out, and I have no doubt it would have taken off a finger if it could.

As the days went by I found myself looking out the window for the cat. I stuffed some blankets under the shed, although it rarely slept there. Once it ate, it moved back out into the desert.

I also found my depression lifting. I shared Thanksgiving dinner with a small group of new friends and when I returned home, the cat, with its usual ill-tempered snarl, was under the shed.

I brought out its food and told it, “You could come inside if you’d just chill out.” It pulled its ears back and hissed.

Small things can change our mood and they often have one thing in common—helping someone or something else. As soon as we step outside our own problems and feel compassion for someone who has it worse than we do, we begin to appreciate the life that’s in front of us.

It was impossible to not feel moved for this tiny creature that had survived in such a harsh environment. At night it seemed coyotes crawled out from every bush and burrow, yet it eluded them.

When it snowed I worried about it, but the following day its tracks would be in the snow and I’d find it hiding under the shed.

There are many ways we can be of service in the world. Even small acts of compassion can go a long ways. I think it’s more effective than donating money.

Of course, everyone needs money and it’s great to contribute to something we believe in, but money is service at a distance. It doesn’t alleviate the heart the way genuine human kindness does.

When we hand over a plate of hot food at a soup kitchen or save an abused animal, we’re connecting with another living being. We’re touching hands or fur, sharing a smile or a word.

Even if you’re shy and don’t like to be in groups there are many low-key, private ways to help lift someone’s spirit or ease an animal’s suffering:

1. Do you like to cook? Bake some extra pies and donate them to a homeless shelter.

2. Become a virtual mentor for a teen through a site like icouldbe.org.

3. Volunteer at a local school. Many schools are short staffed and welcome community involvement.

4. Knit or crochet afghans or scarves and take them to your local senior center.

5. Offer to babysit for a friend. You serve the adult, who could use a night out, and being around kids is often uplifting.

6. Volunteer to shop for a sick neighbor.

7. Volunteer for a crisis hotline.

8. Offer to take an elderly person shopping, to the movies or just for a drive.

9. Volunteer to read to children at your library’s story hour.

10. Put together a hygiene kit for a homeless person that includes toothbrush, toothpaste, deodorant, soap, etc.

11. If you pass a panhandler, take them out for a hot meal. Listen to their story.

12. Volunteer at your local animal shelter. If you’re able, adopt a shelter dog or cat. If you can’t make a long-term commitment, you might consider becoming a temporary foster parent for a shelter animal until they find a permanent home.

13. Send a card to a hospitalized kid through a site like cardsforhospitalizedkids.com or to someone in the military through a site like amillionthanks.org.

14. Rake, shovel or clean for an elderly neighbor.

15. Donate blood. You never know when your blood will save someone’s life.

16. Color (alone or with your child) and donate the picture to Color A Smile.

17. Do you have a special talent? Offer to do a free one-day workshop at a low-income community center or battered women’s shelter.

18. Offer to teach someone to read.

19. Donate your used books or clothing to a shelter.

20. Do small acts of service throughout the day—hold the door for people, let someone go in front of you at the grocery store if they have fewer items. Smile.

Once you begin to think of ways to help, the possibilities are endless. You are giving to the world, and as a result you’ll find yourself thinking less of your own problems and your heart softening.

When we approach life with an attitude of service we develop empathy. It’s no longer about us, but about what someone else needs.

As for the cat, when you feed something, a responsibility goes with it. For the past several weeks I’ve tried to trap it to take into our local feral cat clinic where they will spay or neuter and vaccinate it. So far it’s eluded me, even managing to twice steal the food without setting the trap.

There’s a lesson in this as well. Service is not the same as saving.

We can help ease another’s suffering, but we’re not responsible for saving them. We need to accept that sometimes our service isn’t wanted or appreciated and if necessary, we need to step back and let them go.

Some people don’t want to be saved. Some cats don’t want to be caught.

It doesn’t matter. Being of service isn’t about accolades or praise. It’s about healing the world and us by taking tiny steps to make the planet a better, more compassionate place for all the creatures that share it.

Woman and kitten image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Leslie Jordan Clary

About Leslie Jordan Clary

Leslie Clary is a writer, photographer and online college instructor who believes it’s never too late to create a life we will love living. She writes a monthly newsletter, Our Daily Zen, and is working on a book about healing from child sexual abuse.

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  • raychil

    Lovely article thanks 🙂

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful list!!! Thank you for the ideas and links! 🙂

  • Tracy

    Love the Abe Lincoln quote, and I wholeheartedly agree. I volunteered at an animal hospital during a period of unemployment, then helped on a crisis hotline while just working part-time (and job hunting). It’s definitely beneficial to focus on others during challenging times — puts things in better perspective and is very meaningful/rewarding while other life particulars may be in flux and somewhat stressful. Amplifies gratitude also.