“Let us make one point, that we meet each other with a smile, when it is difficult to smile. Smile at each other, make time for each other in your family.” ― Mother Teresa
This is the time, beginning with Thanksgiving and lasting through the arrival of the new year, that most people think not only about themselves but also about how to help others less fortunate. It is impossible to turn on the news without seeing the needs of others in your community or elsewhere in the world.
Given the difficult parts of the holiday season–extra things to do, children out of school wanting to be entertained, increased financial burdens, bigger crowds, more traffic, and what often feels like exponentially increased pressure from all directions–the attention turned to serving others can be one of the best parts of the season. It can also help you to pause and reflect on what you can be grateful for.
Everyone has something to give. A smile or kind words to a stranger, shoveling snow for your neighbor, soup for a shut-in. No money is required–only willingness to think of someone else. The most precious things we can give are our time, our attention, our touch, or simply our presence.
Even if you are depressed or lonely–or perhaps especially when life is difficult–doing something kind for someone else can take your attention away from yourself and your pain, if only for a moment. Seeing the suffering of others can also make you realize that you are not alone. Every family faces losses–the death of loved ones, the dissolving of relationships, the trials of aging.
From the time our children were toddlers, we went together as a family to sing at convalescent hospitals for the elderly. We always went on Christmas day because the people left were alone, without loved ones to visit.
Some were silent and looked like they were dead, while others cried and clung to us when we approached their beds. Some spoke gibberish, and many didn’t smell very good. Our children were at times very afraid and hid behind us or begged not to go, and at different ages were more curious, comfortable, and open-hearted.
They learned first by watching, singing from a distance as we held people’s hands, stroked their hair, and wiped their tears. Every year our family shared the miracle of watching perfect strangers, fellow human beings, come alive and smile or weep at the touch of a hand, the sight of a child, or the ring of a familiar song. This has become one of our most treasured rituals of the holiday.
“I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.” ― Kahlil Gibran
“Kindness in words creates confidence. Kindness in thinking creates profoundness. Kindness in giving creates love.” ― Lao Tzu
All of the world’s major religions teach that charity and service are essential values to practice and to teach to our children, with the explicit message that helping others is a kind and loving thing to do, which it is. But another, equally important reason to find ways to be of service, not only now but all through the year, is because of what it teaches the giver.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, the great American poet and philosopher, believed that “it is one of the great compensations in life that no one can help another without helping themselves.” Besides the joy and satisfaction that we can get from knowing that we have helped someone, acts of service can teach us and our children many important lessons. What better way to learn empathy for others, gratitude for what we receive, and familiarity with people who are different from us.
Changing Consciousness from Me to We
As family and as community, we can face together the reality of old age, illness and death. We can share stories of our grandparents and how they lived and died. We can hear the stories of people who fled oppression and of those who are oppressed still. We can hear stories of hope and of perseverance against all odds. It only takes the time to listen deeply without judgement.
Serving meals at a homeless shelter, taking packages to needy children, visiting shut-ins, or singing in hospital wards can be difficult but, then again, so is life. Serving can break your heart…open.