The question crept into my consciousness in the early morning hours yesterday. When open to receiving them, the best inspirational thoughts do, and I jump on the opportunity to mold them into teaching tools. Turning 59 this year has set me on a trajectory and track that runs forward and backward. Taking stock as I enter the sixth decade of my life, I have a strong desire to propel myself into an empowered future, and I am aware that to do that, I need to glean treasures from the past that led me to this moment.
I grew up in a family in which service was valued. In addition to raising my sister and me, working full time jobs, my parents volunteered in the community. My father was a firefighter and ran a Sunday morning breakfast gathering for kids at our synagogue and my mother donated her time at the local hospital, as a room mother at school and a Girl Scout cookie parent. She also handed out ribbons for our swim team. They set the bar high for donating of time and energy that my sister and I attempt to hurdle over.
From 1979 to 1982, I worked (initially as a volunteer and then as paid staff) for a crisis intervention center in Glassboro, New Jersey, called Together, Inc. It was where I cut my teeth on counseling and mental health education and the point at which I initiated long term friendships with my co-workers, who are still a treasured part of my life all these years later. One of them, named Gina Foster, said something a few decades following our initial encounter that she was determined to “live significantly.” That she has. A mother, grandmother and still in a helping profession, I know she makes a difference each day. When I look at the people with whom I shared my formative young adulthood, I observe that all of them remain in service work professionally. Even those who have retired, give back in some way.
Last week, I donned my unicorn costume, complete with gold star in the middle, a hood with the requisite horn and rainbow arrayed fluff and tail, and gold slippers with the same multi-colored stuff. The purpose was to entertain, dance with and inspire K-5 students for an organization called Rubye’s Kids. Founded 24 years ago, it has offered holiday joy for many thousands of inner city children in Philadelphia at an annual party. Roz and Don Weiss took over the reins of the organization after the founder named Rubye Caesar died.
I heard about it initially 15 years or so ago via a friend who used to be part of the group. Like me, she was a clown. My initial foray had me enjoying it so much that I returned for a few years each December. As my schedule got busier, I took some years off and it was only this year that I had time to jump back on board. What a joy it was to watch these faces of children for whom this may have been the only source of holiday gifts and entertainment that more privileged youngsters take for granted. They ran around and played with Sponge Bob and Spider Man garbed characters and danced to the music issuing forth from the sound board that Don Weiss operated. They were eager to partake of the toys, books, games, hats, gloves, decorate yourself cupcakes, rub on tattoos and “sparkle buttons” that read, “My sparkle lights up the world,” as a battery-operated light blinked. I was asked to hold down the fort at that table and as I pinned the buttons on hundreds of red and white t-shirt wearing students, my own sparkle radiated outward. A multi-generational endeavor, Roz and Don’s adult children, Amy and Adam, have been involved since they were young. Many friends from the community continue to donate their time, energy and love.
Rubye’s Kids’ mission is “to empower children living in poverty through joyful, enriching experiences that promote strong values, education, respect for self and others and commitment to community.”
Their vision is “to provide a variety of enriching experiences for needy children in the Philadelphia Metropolitan area so that they have an opportunity to grow into self-assured, benevolent adults, who give back to the communities they encounter in their personal and professional lives.”
I remember something that the Dalai Lama verbalized when I interviewed him in 2008. I had asked him about the legacy he wanted to leave when he died.
“No, no, no. Many years ago, a New York Times journalist asked me that question. I told her, as a Buddhist practitioner, not allowed. If I take serious my legacy, that means self-centered. So, I answer that and then again that lady asked a second time and I answered same way and then a third time and then I lost my temper. If you ask, I may lose my temper. (Laughter followed.) Your motivation should be sincere, and your life should be of benefit to some people. That is the main thing. Don’t care after my death.”
For me, a legacy isn’t about ego gratification or how I will be remembered. It is about doing good for its own sake, about practicing tikkun olam, which means “the repair of the world,” in Hebrew. It is about being an example of loving kindness, of being the first one to reach out. It calls on us each day to do more than merely exist. We can take up space or we can make a difference.
I have also observed that people who have a purpose and live from that place, are less likely to be depressed or addicted. I have seen ‘unreasonable’ happiness overcome fear and challenges and that doing good can indeed make you feel good.
Do you take up space or make the world a better place? If you can’t give money, give time. Give your heart. Give your peaceful presence. Offer love. Offer healing. Clean up your side of the street. Make a difference. Let your legacy be remembered as a blessing to inspire others. As my friend Nimesh Patel says, we come into this world empty handed. We leave empty handed. It is what we do in between that makes a difference. Share kindness. Be a force for good in the world. It needs you.