Sunday, December 5, 2010

The other day I was asked about how to change her Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character. Naturally, I asked why. The response I received was meant to be a jab at me and my ilk, for sure, but I took it as a compliment when my Facebook friends and I were referred to as nerds. Presumably, this was supposed to mean that I (and others like me) don't interact well with the rest of the outside world either. That's fine, I can accept that. What I don't understand is why it is supposed to be a bad thing to not take part in populist cyber-movements that are only so effective. For that matter, there is no real reason for me to take part in any populist movement.

Let's face it, I could change my profile picture to Charlie Brown, but that won't really make some eight year old's life any better. Becoming a foster parent will. Becoming a social worker will. Becoming a teacher will. Becoming a friend will. Taking an active role in our communities and neighborhoods will probably make the lives of abused children better. Opening our doors (literally) and taking a look outside; or even better yet, going outside and being vigilant will probably do more to prevent child abuse than changing my profile picture. Making friends with our neighbors and becoming an active participant in our immediate communities will probably do the same because it is just too difficult to hide abuse from the world if world is sitting in the abuser's living room. Unfortunately, our lives are far too complex to ensure that even our direct involvement will make a difference, but at least it is an active attempt.

As a society, we really like to project our best intentions in ways that are not always the most fruitful. Changing my picture won't really make anyone's life any better. If anything, it will just give me a false sense that I have actually done something good for the world, when in reality I did something for myself. I don't want to rain on any one's parade because I am sure that all the cartoon character profile pictures are well intentioned, but I don't think it is fair for those of us outside of cyber-populist movements like this to be made fun of. In fact, maybe everyone who changed their profile pictures should also be required to volunteer their time with a socially conscious, people-oriented organization. Maybe every time we post something to "bring awareness" we should also automatically commit to volunteering for some organization or directly donate money that will actually do something in regard to that issue. Then it becomes real.

I do appreciate the idea of bringing awareness to something or working to prevent something else, but we know about the value of talk. All we need to do is look at the thousands who braved the rainstorms to raise money and take part in the Susan G. Komen walk. That is real commitment. Notice how many people walk for autism or give to food banks. If we really want to help the lives of children, then advocate for and raise funds to build shelters for families escaping abuse. Press our politicians to reinstate the funding cut from mental health services for children. How about unconditional free medical coverage for any child, regardless of socio-economics or medical condition? How about free counselling services for anyone who has gone through a traumatic experience? After all, many abusive adults have also experienced something devastating in their own lives that contribute to their own loss of control.

Yes, Charlie Brown would be much nicer than the mug I have on my Facebook right now, but what difference will it really make? Probably not as much as actually taking five minutes to talk to some child or parent who is having a bad day. Definitely not as much as actually doing something for those abused children instead of yourself.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Season's Greetings

Although I didn't follow my mother's Christian faith, I still love this time of the year. And yes, I do call it Christmas, even though I don't practice or believe in any version of the Christian religion. The reality is that even secular-minded people like me can fully appreciate the good-will-toward-men mentality that presents itself from mid-November through the beginnings of a new year. It gives us all hope that, despite our differences, our more generous and humble nature will prevail to ensure that the world will survive for one more year until we can regain this feeling again.

Today at the grocery store I bought a bag of food for some nameless needy family, and had my son help me drop it into the collection barrel as we walked out the door. When he asked why we were leaving a bag of food at the store I simply replied that we need to help those who don't have enough food. The sad thing is that so many of us (myself included) don't do this enough throughout the year.

I've been poor and I've seen the sadness on my mother's face because of it, still I become so wrapped up in my own world that I seldom remember to extend my own helping hand. I do a lot of socially conscious work as a teacher, but I get paid for that so it really shouldn't count. But today at the grocery store I picked up a pre-packaged bag of food that cost me about six dollars to help another human being. It honestly isn't enough, so I am sure I will repeat the gesture a number of times in the coming weeks, but then what?

Like so many parents I'm going to spend more than I should at Christmas time on my children and on the children of those I care deeply about, but that isn't what this season is about. Throughout the northern hemisphere cultures have used this time leading up to the winter solstice to battle the the very real, increasing darkness; and this might be key factor to what has helped us survive. Regardless of a person's religious beliefs (or lack thereof) we, as a species, has found it in our hearts to help those in need. Some do it as an ulterior motive for some personal or collective gain, and I believe them to be down right despicable. Yet, others give just because it is the correct thing to do, with no strings attached, no pop quiz before you get your meal, no jibber jabber to earn a blanket and a cot. They just give because it is the human thing to do.

I hope that during the next couple weeks we all can find it in our hearts and pocketbooks to buy a bag of groceries, a blanket, or a toy for someone who has less than we do. I hope that I remember to do it enough that my children learn that giving is an essential part of humanity. I hope I can sustain my efforts beyond the new year, and hope you can too. Together, we just might make the world a better place. You never know, one day when you least expect it, you just might be paid in kind for your small sacrifice, and on that day, at that moment, you will realize how fortunate you were to give and how fortunate it can be to receive.