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One Small Change

A Charitable Resolution

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This past year I made 12 small changes in my life for the sake of this monthly blog. These ranged from the indulgent (napping for 20 minutes daily) to the nearly incontinent (drinking 120 ounces of fluid every 24 hours to stay fully hydrated.) Some of these small changes stuck with me (like eating real food and stretching regularly) but others I’ll never revisit (like giving up caffeine and drinking 120 ounces of fluid every 24 hours). But no small change has proven more perplexing and personally troubling than the one I undertook this month.

On the surface, it seemed so simple: Exercise my heart in an altruistic rather than aerobic way by donating some time and money this holiday season to those less fortunate. Specifically, I planned to work as a Salvation Army bell ringer and also give away $50 apiece to 40 strangers.

I’m proud to say that I met my first goal admirably, ringing up $608 for my red kettle during a marathon 10-hour shift at the mall. But I’m embarrassed to admit that I failed miserably at the second. The reason why strikes to the core of who I am, what I need to become, and perhaps even why there’s not more charity in the world.

My dilemma began when I took my 75-year-old mother, who’s losing her sight, to the ophthalmologist. As usual the office was full of seniors with similar plights, but this time there was also an African-American woman with a newborn there. The baby fussed until a nurse came over to dab salve on its eyes. My heart went out to this young mother, but as I reached into my wallet for a fifty to give her, I stopped. How crass and even insulting, I thought. Could money in whatever denomination ever begin to soothe this situation?

Then a few days later I came across a volunteer fireman directing traffic at the scene of an accident. It was a bitterly cold night, but there he was in the middle of the road risking his life. As I merged into the line of traffic moving slowly by him, I thought of rolling down my window and handing him a fifty. But again I thought of how crass that would be. The service he’s providing is beyond mere tips.

Indeed, every time I had the urge to give someone money, a stronger urge arose that made me question whether such a gift was worthy. Whether I was considering buying an old woman’s groceries at the supermarket or a family’s Christmas tree at the lot, I always got this creeping suspicion that charity should be more than that. Frankly, it’s a feeling I never expected to have. And after much soul-searching, I think there are three reasons for my struggles:

  • I’m not Bill Gates. For a freelance writer without a dependable income, for a father with college tuition payments still looming, for an only child raised by frugal parents, giving away two grand is still a major sacrificial lamb. Although it sounded cool at the outset, the reality of my economic situation and upbringing eventually made it seem like a foolish and downright wasteful stunt.
  • The change was too big. In my eagerness to play philanthropist, I had violated the rules of my own experiment. Giving away $2,000 is not a small change, because that kind of money isn’t small change to me. In his book, “The Kaizen Way: One Small Step Can Change Your Life,” psychologist Robert Maurer, Ph.D., explains what happened to me. Kaizen is the Japanese word for the premise of this blog, that “a journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.” Maurer contends that the reason we struggle with change is because that first step is often too big. Whether it’s getting back in shape by summer, packing on 10 pounds of new muscle, losing 20 pounds of fat, or giving away $2,000, such grand plans doom us from the start by providing more intimidation than inspiration. To get around this, we must take baby steps. (To start losing weight and getting in shape, for instance, Maurer recommends discarding one bite of food from your plate or exercising for three minutes daily.) For a rookie philanthropist like myself, giving away $5 apiece to 20 strangers would have been a more realistic way to begin making charity a habit.
  • Money isn’t the answer. Although cash is the first thing we reach for when asked to contribute, this experiment made me skeptical that it’s what’s really needed. Again and again, when an opportunity arose to give money, the gesture felt empty. Maybe that’s because true charity involves reaching into your heart rather than into your pocket. It would have been more fitting for me to reassure that woman in the doctor’s office that everything would be all right, or roll down my window and thank that fireman for volunteering his time, or help that old lady get her groceries into the car, or assist dad in getting that giant tree up on the SUV’s roof. I unfortunately did none of these things. I just stood there with my hand reaching for my wallet, but as it turned out not reaching far enough. No doubt such little kindnesses would have been more sincere and appreciated.

I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you. I’m not in the habit of breaking promises. And I don’t blame you if you think my logic is just a smokescreen of selfish and stingy excuses. I realize I have a lot of work to do. So I’m not going to end this small change experiment after 30 days like I usually do. Rather, I’m going to make it even smaller. As Maurer says: “Kaizen offers the possibility that through small acts of kindness, and even small moments of compassion and curiosity, we can change ourselves—and eventually, humanity.”

So instead of occasionally giving away $50, from time to time I’m going to try spending 50 seconds helping, thanking, complimenting and reassuring. That’s my New Year’s resolution: To continue toward my goal of being more charitable but to do so in ways that are more authentic and sensible. As usual, you’re welcome to join me. We could all use that kind of company.

About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Goals, Attitude, Leisure Time

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