I’ve been a Social Worker since 1985. Since that time the meaning of the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas have morphed into something for which I no longer have the same level of joy and appreciation. Once a time of joy spent with family has morphed into frustration and a time of year I wish I could simply skip over.
I began by discussing my education and role as a Social Worker. You may have asked why this was important? It is my role which has indirectly lead me to the feelings which I now have toward the holidays. Since 1985 I have seen budget cuts rip through communities. I have seen the disparity between those who who have and those who do not increase. I recall my father saying this many times when I was younger never believing this would actually happen. I used to believe in the inherent goodness of humankind. On some levels I continue to believe we are a good and caring society. I see others everyday who give back in some way. I also believe these numbers are decreasing as the competition for the remaining resources also decreases.
Yesterday I spoke with three patients who had all made some statement reflecting their desire to end their life. Some of those statements were very direct while others were less so. One patient after hearing he had not taken his medication in one month said, “I don’t have the money for my medication.” As we spoke it was clear the finances had been present but the patient decided to forgo his medication so he could give his three children some semblance of a Christmas. This same individual has also not paid his rent for this month and will now be forced to double up on next months rent. If he cannot make that payment he could face eviction. We all face difficult decisions but these decisions and the accompanying difficulty is magnified during this time. The Salvation Army indicated their kettle donations are down 18% from this same time last year.
Difficult decisions; decisions which many of us would have easily made if they had even crossed our mind for more than a few seconds. I am sure there are readers of this post who are also passing judgement asking many questions but not knowing what I now of this family and many more like his. Unfortunately we hear of those individuals who have successfully scammed the system for years and bilked it out of thousands of dollars even as our own tax payments increase and stretch our budgets to near breaking point. There are those individuals. These are also the individuals with whom the media show as a public display overshadowing those in true need. As a result we make assumptions, assumptions which cause us to turn our backs and crawl into a shell of “Not in my backyard.” “It’s not my issue so why should I be concerned?” We vote for politicians for the simple fact that they have promised to reduce our own tax burden. This is accomplished by cutting the services the majority of us do not use. The same services none of us think anything about until the economy falters, we lose our job and and we now need those same services only to find they have been dramatically cut and they now no longer exist.
Over the years, I like many other professions have been asked to do more with less. Social Work is different from the profession where an employee is being asked to take on more projects. In my profession I cannot. I cannot make a referral for a patient to a services that does not exist. I take the phone call and listen as a patient has lost a job, cannot pay rent, is afraid to tell their spouse, cannot but groceries and medication with Christmas around the corner. As I listen I know the weather has turned cold meaning the remaining shelters are full and turning away many individuals. Food pantries are also turning away people; often the same people who have given to those same pantries are now the individuals who now need the services provided by those pantries.
My Buddhist practice and my meditation practice helps me to maintain a more even balance in my day and manage the feelings associated with the difficult stories which I hear everyday. Without my practice I believe I would have either abandoned the profession which I love so much or turned to other, unhealthy ways to manage my own stress.
As a practicing Buddhist, the practice of giving is central to my belief system. This is a belief which was ingrained since I was a small boy. I give everyday through my Social Work practice. My Buddhist practice ensures I do not exceed the balance in my “emotional bank account.” If exceed this balance I have nothing left to give. My practice allows me to give spiritually the gift of loving kindness by being present with my patients. Sometimes it is enough to simply listen. My patients know I cannot give them what I cannot find. They are simply happy because I have listened.
The Buddha taught when we give to others, we give without expectation of reward. We give without attaching to either the gift or the recipient. We practice giving to release greed and self-clinging.
As Christmas approaches I ask you to reevaluate what that day means to you and what you are teaching your children. As Christmas has morphed into a material enterprise which begins in October with sale signs telling us what we need and reminding us we should make the purchase now before its all gone or the sale price has evaporated. These same businesses now compete for the ever shrinking dollar. Ask yourself if you need a 72″ television or if your children each need a new laptop or iPad. I do not vilify these things and do not decry those who make millions of dollars even in the day of Albert Pujols whose new contract dictates he will make 70K dollars everyday for the next ten years for the privilege of swinging a baseball bat. Give the gift of time. Hold the door open for someone as they follow you into a business. Help someone shovel their driveway. Visit someone in a nursing home. Bake cookies and take them to an elderly person in your neighborhood. Helping others does not mean always giving money but give of yourself. These are the gifts which to me mean so much more. Earlier in the week a visually impaired patient drew a picture of me and gave it to me in a frame. This is a gift I will cherish for the rest of my life. When I look at it in my office it reminds of the inherent goodness of humankind. It gives me hope for our future. If we all would simply give a little…