Before my widowhood and my close girlfriend's divorce, we wanted to work on a volunteer activity together. So for a number of years, we ran and coordinated the monthly food drive at our local elementary school. This involved contacting a food pantry in the area to find out their specific needs, having collection boxes in each classroom and school office, "advertising" the food drive in the school's weekly paper, working with the students to collect and assemble the donations at the end of the month and then drive it over to the pantry.
Of course, looking back now, it is somewhat ironic that I was involved in this specific activity. I generally wrote-up the notices for the school newspaper and always tried to tie in our requests to the season at hand and what the needs of the pantry were.
What got to me the most, was how some donations were of items that should have been thrown out. Clearly long expired goods, open packages and one of my favorites - the inside contents of either jello or pudding but without the external box. I would try to tactfully address this issue in my notices and encourage generosity and the like.
As I think about all of this now I am struck by the knowledge that I have walked both sides of the fence, so to speak. When I was a volunteer it was with the best of intentions and I wanted to help and make a difference. And I did. But having had to become a food pantry recipient, I must say that what I have gained in terms of internal knowledge and growth has far exceeded those volunteer efforts. I have been confronted with and had to face: humility, guilt, shame, embarrassment, being humbled, grace, dignity, thankfulness, hope, hopelessness, anger, and relief (I could probably even go on with more).
My compassion toward others has increased 100-fold! No longer will I ever look with judgment on someone needing or asking for help. This experience has stretched me far beyond any limits I could have imagined when I was just a middle-aged suburban mom trying to help out a bit in the community.
Once my grief counselor/life transition coach assured me that one day I would surpass the obstacles in my life and reside in a home again and have a better life restored to me. She added that the experiences I've gone through have served as amazing teachers and I am a better person for having lived them. Then she looked at my face and quickly added, "But of course I know that you would trade all of this inner-growth and self-actualization for having your husband still alive and your old life back." And she was right. I would trade it all in an instant to be the less evolved woman that I was seven years ago.
But of course, that isn't possible. So one way to look at it now is to accept that I have grown as a person and to hope that in the end this will all result in some good toward others and the world.
Part of the reason I blog is to try and convey to others about my life in the hope that it will result in greater compassion and kindness to others, especially widows. But I have come to realize that unless you walk in my shoes or live this life, it is impossible for someone to really ever totally understand. That is not a bad thing. Maybe I need to be preaching to the choir or those who are already in my shoes. Maybe I need to shift my focus.
It is hard to hear criticism. But the point is that we learn equally from praise and criticism. And maybe even more from the criticism. I've been thinking about some comments made to me about my not being proactive or creative enough in my situation to move and forge ahead. Yes, I'll admit that is true. I've been depressed and tired and hormonal these past months. But thinking of these comments has inspired me to think a bit more outside the box.
What if I could take some of this knowledge I've gained from my losses and use it productively? I know of a homeless shelter seeking volunteers and thought that even one or two days of going in a month would allow me to meet professionals in my social services field (thus increasing job contacts and giving me updated social services experience on my resume). The boys have also expressed an interest in doing some type of volunteer work. Maybe we could do this together as a family? In any event, I am going to the next volunteer training in early January and we'll see where that goes. I at least can serve as a compassionate listener to those in worse situations than myself.
Part of my message today goes out to others struggling. It is true that we grow more from the hardships than what is easy for us. Some of us will end up suffering and growing more. It doesn't make us better or the suffering less painful. But in the end, I don't think it is for naught. I believe somehow, someway our experiences will end up serving some purpose in bettering the world. Or at least I want to believe this because that is what gives me the most courage and hope.