“Don’t wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great.” ~Orison Swett Marde
I stood at the library counter waiting to check out a stack of books when I overheard an overworked woman explain to the librarian why her books were late.
“My boss has me running his errands after hours. It’s a miracle I made it on time to pick up my daughter from daycare,” she said.
“Are you a personal assistant?” the librarian asked.
“No, I’m a paralegal,” the woman explained. “But staffing is tight, and if I don’t take on the extra tasks I might lose my job. I can’t be picky in this economy.”
I understood the woman. Years ago, when my children were younger, I took on extra tasks both because I needed money and because I could not say no. I connected with her story and wanted to do something to let her know she was not alone.
But what could I offer her?
The desire to give to others spontaneously was as reflexive as smiling. I had learned it over the years by watching others give to me when I was in no position to give back to them.
I rummaged in my purse and found two tickets to the movies I had earned from working overtime. I abandoned my books at the counter and followed the woman and her child outside.
“Excuse me,” I said. “I couldn’t help overhear your conversation about work. I understand what you’re going through because I’ve gone through it myself, and I want you to know I appreciate you even if your boss doesn’t.”
I handed her the tickets. “Take your daughter to a movie,” I said.
Her eyes widened and filled with tears. “Thank you,” she said. “You’ve just made my week.”
That small gesture of solidarity, understanding, and generosity made me feel as close to the woman as I could get to my twenty-two-year old self who worked too many ungrateful hours for too many ungrateful bosses just to help my family survive.
PBS’s special, “This Emotional Life,” explores the healing power of giving through volunteerism and philanthropy.
Research shows that once people have enough to meet their needs, additional money and time do not increase their happiness. It’s only when the donor gives away the additional money and time that the donor’s happiness is increased.
According to Emma M. Seppala, Ph.D., people benefit from giving by connecting with others.
Humans have a built-in need to relate, resonate, and mirror each other. In a world increasingly dependent on technology, the gift of giving of oneself increases intimacy and reduces the likelihood of loneliness.
Giving ripples out in waves like a stone plunked into still waters. It connects us in a tangible way. It makes us realize we are not alone.
Giving doesn’t have to be complicated or grand. It can be an encouraging smile or a gentle hug. Fifteen minutes of attentive listening can be as valuable as a one-hour massage.
After all, it’s not how much we give, but how we give.
If we give from the heart, in a desire to connect, then we seize a common occasion and make it special, which is much different than if we give to a great cause out of obligation or self-importance.
You also don’t have to have a structured system of volunteering and philanthropy to enjoy the benefits of giving. It can become a habit you develop over time until it becomes an integral part of your life.
Start by paying closer attention to the people you encounter during the day. Soon you will recognize an opportunity to give.
If you’re leaving a crowded parking lot and notice someone driving around looking for a spot, you can signal for the person to take your parking spot.
If you see an overwhelmed waitress struggling to keep up with your table’s demands, you can leave a larger tip to show your appreciation. If you notice someone walking around with a permanent frown, you can flash your comforting smile and shine a tiny light on that person’s dark heart.
Generosity isn’t only for strangers. You can weed a neighbor’s garden, cook a meal for your parents, or pay a visit to someone you haven’t seen in a while. Giving to those you know and love the most prevents you from taking them for granted.
An odd by-product of giving freely out of compassion and love is how it makes the giver feel. The more you give from a place of unconditional generosity, the more joy you feel. Giving makes you realize how much power you have to make others feel better about themselves and their lives.
Go out and give whatever you have to whoever needs it. Seek ordinary moments and make them extraordinary. Life truly is a special occasion.
Photo by Jesslee Cuizon