I’ve been a retired social worker for a few years now, and though retired, I was never finished being a social worker. I’m lucky to have found a profession that fills my heart and soul — sharing my kindness and helping those in need is second nature. It started so many years ago, in high school on a trip to Willowbrook, a state mental institution in Staten Island, which no longer exists and is a story in itself. Severely developmentally disabled adults lived there, long forgotten by their families and basically ignored by staff. When my senior high school class made our trip there with the school’s band, I quickly abandoned my crush on the trumpet player and blissfully exchanged hugs, laughter, and good feelings with the residents. Most only made grunting noises but their gratitude at being paid attention to was crystal clear. Adolescence was such a complicated time in my life, so this lifted me out of my usual teen-age funk to a state of exhilaration to be able to provide something that meant so much to this unfortunate group of people.
Many years and many paths later I found my way to graduate school and became a social worker. Giving was entwined with paperwork — literally in those pre computer days — and giving had to be justified, explained, and documented. The documenting process was complicated and put a damper on my giving nature, but still I made my way from one community agency to another until the department of education came along which gave me a decent salary and pension but giving was even more limited by a huge bureaucratic system.
More years passed, a devastating pandemic, cancer, and social isolation to recuperate and stay protected. I spent time giving to myself, reclining on my soft and wonderful pillows until I was able to climb onto the zoom bandwagon. A whole different sort of giving started to blossom.
Who would have expected that volunteer work would be the best of both worlds. I can do what comes naturally without a hassle. And what’s more, giving itself has changed. Where there were perimeters on how much to give and for what reason, policies of social service agencies, giving as a volunteer comes straight from the heart. Previously I was only help Susan in a 45-minute session, and had to assess her state of mind, her health and safety and so on. Then documenting took up more time than the giving itself. Now I can appreciate the joy of connecting with those in need, seeing them nourished and encouraged to move on in their lives and bask in the pleasure of a beautiful exchange until the next time, with someone else.
The pleasure of giving is like good medicine in that it lifts my spirits to know that giving is part of my life’s purpose. It feels as good to give as it does to receive however sometimes I have a question that needs exploring. Giving can come from ego, meaning that I give in order to feel better about who I am. Knowing that I am needed fills me with purpose and it completes me. I remember having a friend with the most giving beautiful heart but at her untimely death and funeral I met her other friends. What I saw surprised me and had great impact: they were all people with deep emotional wounds that she helped. I realized that I was one of those friends. She had one friend that she seemed to be on equal ground with, the amount of giving and receiving between them seemed to be reciprocal. I wondered if my friend gave in order to make herself feel better. I relate with that because giving helps me feel better about who I am. It’s an attribute that helps define me.
There is another type of giving that I also sometimes feel. Cancer has taken away so much, but it also gave me a deeper insight into who I am with the desire to live the rest of my life with greater self-knowledge, acceptance, and love. I feel more determined to discover inner peace and completeness. Popeye’s wise quote, “I yam what I yam,” reinforces total self-acceptance for me. When I give with this sense of completeness it’s like icing on the cake. The cake is delicious as it is, but the icing is an extra special treat.
Whatever drives the need to give, it’s always a glorious feeling connecting with others, however the type of giving that comes from a sense of completeness — rather than a need to give in order to feel complete — seems more satisfying to me because I am already enjoying the feeling of completeness, now I just want to share it. It unites us with each other, and with the Universe. It’s like being in high school again where I first discovered that I have something to give to the residents of Willowbrook —pure joy.