Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Guest Contribution: How Much Giving Is Enough?

The following is a contribution from Vision Powered Coaching at

I think it beautifully addresses the feelings of being overwhelmed by feelings of not being able to do enough, and/or survivor's guilt, in the face of global tragedies. I thank Vision Powered Coaching's creator, Iris Arenson-Fuller

Should You Always Do More, Or Is Less Sometimes Enough?

I just read a good blog post by Alex Lickerman on the blog, Happiness In This World-Reflections of a Buddhist Physician . The title of the post is “You Can Always Do More”. I want to thank him for this article . I, too, thought about going to Haiti to help in some way and had significant feelings of guilt about not going. I am in contact with a few of my friends and colleagues in the world of adoption who have relationships with Haitian orphanages. They sent representatives there to check and to make sure that children who had already been referred to their clients and were in process of adoption were all right, as well as to determine what else they could do to assist. I have not worked in Haiti, personally, but have had some contact with Haitians over the years. At one point, years ago, a Haitian family, sponsored and brought here by a dear friend of mine, lived with me and my family for a period of time while in transition and looking for an apartment. I remember well the commonalities the mother of the family and I shared, in spite of being able to communicate only with some French and lots of sign language. We spoke the language of women and mothers and we developed a real bond. Of course, one would not have to have experienced such a connection to be overwhelmed and moved by the plight of Haitians now, as though life in Haiti were not already enough of a struggle for most.

When it came down to brass tacks, I realized that I do not have the stamina at this stage of my life to face the arduous and dangerous conditions in such a time of devastation in Haiti. It was hard for me to admit this, as I prefer to think of myself as still young, strong and energetic, but the reality is that I am in my sixties and though relatively healthy and thankful for it, I do have some health issues that might impede my stamina and ability to help.

Yes there is always something in this world that we can do help others and to have an impact on lives less fortunate than our own. I certainly related to the feelings of guilt mentioned in Dr. Lickerman’s blog, and to wanting to do all that we can in the face of human need. I love the perspective he gives that if we are helping in one place, we are, thererfore not helping somewhere else, with something else. I know that for many years I spread myself too thinly and often, as a result, could not always do my best job. There are a multitude of ways to help and it begins with one to one, compassionate contact and reaching out. Some of us are able to take that further and do magnificent, selfless things, but that doesn’t diminish the small meaningful interactions or the other ways in which we can make a positive impact on others.

While I have been involved over the years in a variety of charitable works in different countries and in the US, one encounter touched me enormously, though it was only a small intersection of lives and emotions that occurred once, a long time ago in India. I had participated in setting up a feeding program for needy children and a program to teach poor young women a trade, and had visited numerous orphanages too, distributing clothes and supplies. This was moving and rewarding, but nothing like what I felt one particular day when visiting a maternity home. I was escorted to the bedside of a young Muslim woman who had just had a stillborn baby a day before. The translator shared her story with me and told her who I was and why I was there. It was explained that I ran an adoption agency and helped homeless children find loving families, and that I had adopted children myself. I told her how much I loved my children and how I thought of the birth mothers of my children every day, and of what it must feel like to lose a child, no matter in what way. I said that as a mother, my heart was very heavy for her and for what she was having to endure. She began to cry and reached for my hand. I sat with her, mostly in silence, and held her hand for a long time.

Sometimes I sit in my comfortable office and wonder if my furture destiny will still include the privilege of traveling as I was able to do in the past and giving of myself to people who struggle for the basics of survival. I don’t know if this path will be one that presents itself to me, or if I will be physically and financially able to take it if it does. As my days of running an adoption agency draw to a close, and I continue to build my coaching practice, I have many examples of the ways in which I have already touched others and will continue to make a difference in people’s lives. Still the thoughts creep in sometimes that I am needed elsewhere and perhaps am not doing enough to better the world.

Dr. Alex Lickerman, physician and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and a practicing Buddhist, says:

“ But I am arguing that if we already focus on helping others as best we can (and obviously many of us don’t) then we need to realize our cups will never be entirely full—that we really always can do more—but that giving too much will at some point compromise our ability to give at all. I’m saying that as you challenge yourself to do more to help others, be gentle with and forgiving of yourself. The cup may never be full, but for those who take action to help others when they can, it’s always filled with something.”

I remind myself of what I am always telling coaching clients and others in my life. I don’t remember where I got this but I have liked it for a long time.

“If your own bucket has holes, then the sand will run out and you won’t have any left for anybody else.” Not all of us are in positions to be able to travel to Haiti or to put ourselves on the front lines where other humans are suffering and in dire need. We must indeed be as gentle and forgiving with ourselves as we are with others and must take care of ourselves and of others close to us first. As warm-hearted and altruistic as we may be, if we neglect ourselves and the significant people in our lives, then we are not living and loving to our greatest capacity. Each of us is presented with a multitude of opportunities to reach out and touch another human life.

Each of us has unique talents and ways of being able to do that. There are times when the universe presents itself to us and enables us to do really important and large things and other times when a small gesture that we make is appreciated and perhaps can even be life changing. Who is to say that what you do is “not enough”? Your objective is to keep on being a giving, loving person for as long as possible, or at least mine is.

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