I have been fortunate to be surrounded by generous people in my life. My parents are both very generous people, as are my friends, my husband, and his family.
But I don’t think I really understood generosity until I got to know my mother-in-law, Mandy. She was always extremely generous to me, in all ways. She welcomed me into her family with incredible warmth and acceptance, she was always an amazing listener and advice giver, and she helped my husband and I in so many ways, emotionally and financially. She was a rock for us.
When she passed away last year, we were heartbroken and in shock. At the celebration of her life, people my husband and I had never met came up to us at the gathering and smiled and hugged us as if they had known us for years. “You’re Matt and Sam,” they would say with pride. “She told us all about you.”
And then they would tell us what a thoughtful and generous person Mandy was. “Did you know she helped me out when I really needed it?” they would ask, and then go on to tell us another tale of how Mandy had helped them out of a jam, given them a gift they could never have afforded themselves, or made a donation to a cause they cared about.
I knew that Mandy was a charitable person, in general terms, but I had no idea how much she had done, or how many lives she had touched. I just hope she realized it before she passed.
Mandy’s passing was a lesson to me in so many ways. I suddenly knew I wanted to change the way I was living. Once I left my job, I certainly had more time on my hands (but not so much money to give), so volunteering seemed like a natural match.
I reached out to an old friend who had recently been working with WHW, a local organization that helps disadvantaged folks get back to work by providing professional clothing, free classes and coaching. WHW was happy to take me on, and I started my work as a Personal Shopper, helping clients choose professional interview outfits in the donation boutique.
The best part about this work is getting to hear the stories of the clients; some are still in shelters, awaiting transitional or permanent housing; some are veterans looking for a new start; and many are survivors of domestic abuse who left their former lives and belongings behind and have literally nothing left to their names.
One client told me she was grateful, if not a bit scared, to be starting over at the age of 60. Recently released from the hospital after a bout of pneumonia, she was on her way to an interview at Target. “It’s hard to sleep at night,” she told me as we packed up her new clothing. “It’s a shelter, so people come and go at all hours. Last night I got a new roommate at 3 a.m. Poor thing, her face was so banged up, she looked just like I did when I got there.”
As we said our goodbyes, I was overcome with a sense of gratitude as I have never felt it before.
I was grateful I met her; I was grateful she had a bed to sleep in, and some new donated clothes to wear, and I was humbled by her positive spirit and resilience. I thought to myself, “You can never complain about your life, ever again.”
Because she wasn’t complaining about the hard breaks in her life, or claiming to be a victim, or standing around wringing her hands. She knew she was on to bigger and better things. And she was so very grateful and thankful for the help WHW was providing her, because she literally had nothing left.
Giving is Really Getting
Here’s the thing about volunteering; the perspective it offers is something you can’t get, learn, or even buy anywhere else. What I learned from that client, and what I continue to learn as I show up for my shift every week, is that gratitude paints a new wash on your world.
And that giving back is really quite selfish. For the very few hours that I volunteer there each week, I get back tenfold in return an overwhelming sense of humility and gratitude for the abundance of blessings in my life.
Brené Brown says:
“I have never interviewed a single person who talks about the capacity to really experience and soften into joy who does not actively practice gratitude.”
In other words, there is no joy without gratitude. And so far, I’m finding that the quickest way to cultivating an attitude of gratitude is to give some of your time to an organization that has a cause that speaks to you. There really is no greater gift, at least not that I’ve found. And there are so many excellent organizations that need help.
You can find somewhere to volunteer near you, or do some research on local or national organizations you admire. My advice: just find a way to help someone else. I promise it will change your life.