Showing Up, by Jacy Grais

Visiting a homebound holocaust survivor in Romania.

Visiting a homebound holocaust survivor in Romania.

Most of us have many demands on our time, in addition to the things we want to do for pleasure. Why should you add volunteering to your to do list? I can’t answer that question for you, but I can share my perspective. At the core is thinking and acting with appreciation - not the superficial surface-y kind of thanks, but real, deep in your guts (“kishkes” in Yiddish, which I think is more descriptive), stop-you-in-your-tracks, gratitude.

Time and time again, volunteering helps me be thankful for the goodness in my own life - both that which has come from hard work and that which has come from good luck. It sounds cliche, but when I serve a meal to a woman at a homeless shelter, I can’t help but think about how fortunate I am that her reality is not mine. While we may try to fool ourselves otherwise, the truth is, there isn’t anything guaranteeing that I - or you - couldn’t or won’t ever be in her shoes. I could easily thank my lucky stars that I’m not her and move on. Or I could heed the feeling (which I think we all have) that compels me to show her kindness and talk to her as a person, someone probably more similar to me than different, and work to help her make her life better.

Five years ago, I visited with a bedridden, family-less man in the middle of winter in the former Soviet Union, who, but for the help my group provided, would have laid in his bed until he died.  He was overwhelmed by gratitude by our visit and I still get teary when I talk about it. Here I was, sitting with a man who was the exact same age as my father, in a frigid and snowy town not far from where my father’s family originated.  But for the fact that my ancestors immigrated when they did, this man could have been my dad.  This lonely, isolated, scared, ill man could have been my dad.  Again, I could have breathed a sigh of relief that my relatives boarded the ship bound for Ellis Island three generations ago when it was an option, and kept my gratefulness for my circumstances to myself.  But what a waste - of my ability and my heart.  I can’t not share his story. I can’t not try to help others see what I felt so that people like this man will be provided for and not forgotten.  

I’m flawed, as we all are, and certainly a work in progress.  But experiences like these shape me, I believe for the better.  Exposure to life outside my bubble compels me to keep working against injustice, even when the problems of the world seem vast and deep.  When I look at myself in the mirror, what kind of person looks back at me?  One who has lots of good thoughts, or one who puts those thoughts into action?  The truth - my truth - is that life means more when you are thinking about something bigger than yourself, and acting with gratitude in furtherance of those thoughts.  At the end of the day, nothing - not likes, or retweets, or reposts - compares to showing up.   

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