It is possible to do all you can.

This holiday season, a group of fellow yoga teachers and I came together to participate in Adopt-a-Family, a program run locally by Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Iowa. I'm sure many of you have participated in this before, either on your own, with a partner, with your families or through your workplace; it's a fairly popular program and for good reason. Families of varying sizes provide lists of their names and ages as well as both needed and wish list items, and then BBBS matches donors to help try to meet those requests at Christmastime.

Our family -- two parental guardians and three children under the age of 10 -- asked for the following basics: clothing, shoes, household items like bed sheets and picture frames and a coffee maker. The 8-year-old girl asked for a telescope to see stars, a Tamagotchi, a scooter, a kid radio, a truck and then wrote "any toys that are Barbie, horse, My Little Pony or My Little Pet Shop-related." The 7-year-old boy asked for figurines from recent popular movies, a scooter, coloring books and crayons, a truck and a bike. And for the infant, the parents requested warmer clothing, socks, a walker, learning toys, sippy cups and a baby gate.

Here's what humbles me: I've never had to go without any of the above, not in the broad sense.

I've always had socks and shoes, pairs of jeans, plenty of shirts; if anything, my life has erred on the embarrassing side of having too much. Every year, I try to get rid of the things I don't wear and avoid buying attire I don't need, and I've made loads of progress in this area, but even now, I could probably get rid of 1/3 of my closet without noticing a huge difference.

I grew up with books at my every reach, whether store-bought or from the library. I received toys each Christmas that were later abandoned and discarded despite my, I'm sure, intense desire for them at the time. I played Barbies and colored with my sisters; we rode bikes down our neighborhood streets. 

I look around my apartment, and I see carefully chosen frames that capture the faces of places I've been and people I love. I sleep on soft bed sheets every night, with another set covering a second, mostly unused bed in the other room, and another set in the hall closet "just in case." I drink coffee every morning, and our kitchen is full of all the specialty appliances that allow us to get our caffeine fix exactly how we prefer each and every day.

I feel this baby move around in my belly, kicking my ribs and poking the back of my belly button, and I think about how, chances are, this kid will always have access to something to wear, something to drink out of, something to play with. Hell, we own two baby gates for our dog to keep him out of unwanted places.

My friends and I, we fulfilled these requests for this family pretty easily and quickly. It took some text messages and Facebook posts, a little coordination and effort, and then I drove 10 minutes out of my way to drop off a carload of presents to the BBBS office. The team there unloaded everything in less than five minutes, noting repeatedly how awesome it was that we were able to donate so much, how the family in question would be beyond thrilled. 

And it felt good. And I felt grateful. And I felt proud of our little group that was able to give back in a tangible way, even if we didn't see the end results. And then I felt kind of empty.

I read something that punched me in the stomach recently:

It’s been a tough few weeks here on Planet Earth. A lot of violence, a lot of suffering, a lot of sorrow and anger and reaction and revenge.

Beirut, Paris, and now Mali. Attacks upon the innocent by the ignorant. The rise of Isis. The desperate plight of refugees. Everywhere I look, I see tender-hearted people who are in pain, and hard-hearted people who are in rage. It’s very hard to process, very hard to bear.

In response to it all, we can also witness a very natural human movement happening across the world — namely, an impulse toward CLOSING EVERYTHING DOWN.

Close your borders.
Close your town.
Close your wallets.
Close your eyes.
Close your heart.
Close your mind.

But this is what most humans do when we feel cornered and threatened. We close everything down. We do it on a global scale and we do it on a personal scale. We lose our mercy. All too often, our mercy is first thing to go when we feel overwhelmed. We start saying to our fellow man: “Your suffering is not my problem. I have enough problems. I don’t have any space to imagine your nightmare, because I’m too busy living out my own nightmare. Goodbye.” (Or maybe even, in stronger moments: “Go to hell.”)
— Elizabeth Gilbert

I am so guilty of this. I watch the news and I listen to the radio and then I turn it off so that I don't have to listen or watch anymore. I get fired up about service projects off and on, especially during the holiday season, and then I become really tired and start thinking I am TOO BUSY and I ALREADY GIVE and I need to PRIORITIZE OTHER THINGS and CAN'T SOMEBODY ELSE HELP.

I think about our little family we adopted, and I am so thankful we were able to give them a better Christmas, but then I wonder -- what happens after that, to them? How about the rest of the year: do they have enough food and clothing then? What about the kids' birthday, do they get any presents? Then my mind spirals and I feel overwhelmed by all the need, all the struggle, all the poverty, all the fear, all the constant asks for time and money and effort -- in my community and in the world . . . and I shut down.

Fact: the other day we were driving home and I saw a man holding up a sign asking for money on the side of the street. I said out loud, to my husband: "That's a pretty awful place to stand, don't you think? There's no way any cars can even stop on that corner."


Because let's be real, I probably wouldn't have stopped. I would have looked the other way uncomfortably, glanced down at my phone and kept up an animated conversation (Because I'm too busy, you see, and oh, sorry, I didn't even notice you over there) and drove on. I would have told myself that it's better to donate to charity than give to a homeless man on the street; at least with the former I know where the money is going. I would have told myself that it isn't safe, as a young woman, to stop in the middle of the road and roll down my window to talk to a stranger.

Writing about it forces me to confront it which allows me to think about how I can behave differently in the future. I consider, years from now, this scenario: I'm driving with my kid in the car and we stop at an intersection. We see someone asking for money. My child says, "Shouldn't we help that person, Mom?" We should. We should.

But I worry that I will instead turn to my familiar excuses, the ones that make me feel safe but keep me small: we're in a hurry, we don't talk to strangers, it's not safe, it's better to give food at a shelter than money, etc. 

God, I hope I don't do that. I hope I can teach my kid that if you're able to give -- you give. That's the basic tenet of religion and humanity, at my least in my opinion. Love your neighbor like yourself and that means if you can help, help. You never know when you might be the person in need.

A writer I love puts it like this:

I’m on the lookout for ways that I withhold grace from myself and from other people. At first, showing people grace makes you feel powerful, like scattering candy from a float in a parade—grace for you, grace for you. You become almost giddy, thinking of people in generous ways, allowing for their faults, absorbing minor irritations. You feel great, and then you start to feel just ever so slightly superior, because you’re so incredibly evolved and gracious.

But then inevitably something happens, and it usually involves you confronting one of your worst selves, often in public, and you realize that you’re not throwing candy off a float to a nameless, dirty public, but rather that you are that nameless, dirty public, and that you are starving and on your knees, praying for a little piece of sweetness, just one mouthful of grace.
— Shauna Niequist

It's okay that I did a service project with friends and we made a difference in one family's Christmas and we all feel good about that. I don't think it's useful to self-indict yourself for not being perfect or not doing everything 100% -- and that includes community work. But I never want to forget my good luck and constant bounty; I never want to get so jaded and self-involved that I see a person in need and look away. My blessings take my breath away, and I do truly believe that those of us who are more fortunate have an obligation to reach out a helping out to others who are not. 

Christmas is two weeks away. Enjoy it, really and truly, but hold onto your gratitude and don't ignore all the tiny opportunities to offer grace to someone else.

And then, when the new year arrives, remind yourself: it is impossible to do it all, but possible to do all you can. 

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