27 February 2010

Lesson #3: Do good works.

I miss service-learning.

You know, the 'x' number of hours you needed to graduate high school?  That was a pretty big part of my education.  We had requirements for all 4 years of middle school (4, since mine went 5-8), in high school, for NHS, for confirmation group, and even in college, when I participated in and then later taught Honors 100, a college acclimation course.  I didn't always like the requirement, or the projects.  I was one of those busy kids with fifty million activities going on, so sometimes the service projects were just one more thing to do.  A couple of years, I managed to get service credit for things I was already doing, like volunteer child care - it wasn't cheating, but it wasn't really in the spirit of the program.  In some instances, the project itself wasn't something I was really excited about, either because it pushed my comfort zones, or because I didn't find it that exciting.  Without a doubt, my favorite activity was Habitat for Humanity because:

  1. I got to play with power tools.
  2. I learned some cool stuff - I helped build a frame for a wall.  A wall!  It wasn't there when we started, it was when we finished.
  3. We worked side-by-side with the homeowners, and got to hear their plans for the house, and what it meant to them.
  4. It was physical activity, and outdoors.
  5. Did I mention the power tools?
I was a fan.  (As an aside, if you're interested in this sort of opportunity, I encourage you to check out a Habitat near you, or if you live in my area, participate in a program like Rebuild Howard County)  But once the requirement went away, poof! So did the time.  I found other ways to fill it, and volunteered only when organizations I was already a part of needed it. (Helping at Ride for Kids with the local motorcycle club was probably a close second, in terms of enjoyment, to Habitat)

I've realized now that I miss it.  Why?  Well, first of all, volunteering made me feel pretty good - maybe a selfish thing to focus on, but still legitimate.  Helping other people helped me feel connected to my community.  I liked working with other volunteers toward a common goal, and I really enjoyed events where I could see the reactions of the people we were helping.  Even the activities I didn't enjoy, the ones that made me uncomfortable, were good, because sometimes comfort zones need to be pushed, unconscious bias needs to be revealed and removed.  And, finally, it was a great way to do something that I sometimes forget to do: be nice to people.

Enter Project Nice, and Project Nice 2.0/Project Super Nice.  I would like to say that I know some amazing people.  One of them is Erinn, the moving force behind these projects.  She undertook, on her own, a month-long campaign of Niceness, and wrote about it.  It was such a great thing that she brought it back a month later, and invited friends to play along.  I'm not going to write about my experiences here.... because I still need to write them up and send them to her... but what I do need to say is that seeing her consciously be nice to people has really affected how I look around my world, on good days and bad.

We're (or at least I was) taught from an early age, and in religious education when I was growing up, to Do Good Works.  Sometimes this means volunteering.  Sometimes it means giving to your church, or to charities. Sometimes, it feels like you're supposed to be changing the world.  What I like about something like Project Nice is it focuses on things, sometimes big, sometimes little, always manageable, that we can do just to make life a little more special for someone else.  Giving money is great.  Supporting a cause is great.  But how often do we just stop and smile at someone?  Help someone with their groceries?  Write a note thanking someone for doing their job, or a little better than their job, or just for being special and existing, right alongside us, trying to get by?  There have been times where people have done the same for me: they've complimented my shoes, or asked me a question about something I was doing, or just stopped me and asked me to smile when I was having a bad day, and it showed on my face.  I can't really put into words how much this has meant, on certain days.
Participating in Project Nice 2.0 hasn't been too easy for me, mostly because of timing.  It's taught me that being nice, in some ways, means different things based on where we are in life.  There are days when I'm going to be down, where I want to curl into myself and tell the world to go away, or when I want to just plow through what I have to do, get it over with, and move on.  I might be angry, with or without reason, or distracted.  To be perfectly realistic, I'm probably not going to do Mother-Theresa-Worthy works on those days.  I hate to be selfish, but it's the truth.  We can only do as much as we can, on a given day.

But what I can do is smile at a stranger.  I can notice when someone seems to be having a hard time, and offer to help with something small.  I can listen, when someone needs to talk.  Or tell them what I like about them, or what a great job they're doing.  Doing these small things might help them through, and it's definitely helped me.  It's reminded me that there's a world beyond my problems, that there are other people ricocheting through life just like me, and smoothing the way for them pulls me out of my own bad place, and helps me find perspective.  Sure, I can only do as much as I can today, but what I can do makes a big difference.

I'm looking forward to finishing my tasks for Project Nice 2.0.  I'm glad I got to participate in this project, it's been very cool.  And I'm looking forward to some new opportunities to volunteer at my community - because it is important to be connected, and to give back to other people who need it.

Do you volunteer?  Is there an activity you've really enjoyed?  What was something a stranger has done for you, that's been really nice?

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