Notes from the Field includes reports from young people volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015. This is our eighth round of bloggers: Sarabella Muise is a Good Shepherd Volunteer in New York City, and Julianna Lewis is a VIDES+USA volunteer in Bogotá, Colombia. This is Sarabella's seventh blog post. Read more about her.
The more experiences I have and the more I engage in conversations about life, justice and equality, the more I believe that the only thing you can truly control is yourself. This means your daily interactions with others, the way you talk to yourself, how you engage in politics or advocacy, and even how much you recycle.
When I think about things on a greater scale — such as the staggering amount of shootings our country experiences, the rapidly growing gap between the rich and the poor, the way our planet is reacting to our treatment of the environment — I become overwhelmed to my core. So much so that it can affect my daily interactions.
I think we have all experienced reading or watching the news and feeling less hopeful afterward. It can manifest itself in many ways, like being grouchy toward a roommate, short-tempered with a co-worker, or isolating yourself from loved ones.
Because of my common reaction to analyzing issues of today on a macro level, I try to stay focused on the micro level I actually have control over. Some may equate this attitude with the important difference between charity and justice. Charity implies immediate, smaller needs that often put a "Band-Aid" on a systemic issue. By contrast, justice implies changing the entire system.
Daily personal interactions might be looked at as charity. For example, smiling at a homeless person does not change the fact that they are homeless. However, I choose to believe that smile could have been the moment that person realizes they are worth walking into a shelter and asking for help. Kindness like that has a ripple effect. If enough people walk around with a compassionate attitude, the collective presence of that compassion can be felt viscerally.
I want to share a handful of stories of daily interactions I have experienced as a Good Shepherd volunteer that radiated kindness, care and compassion. Participating in a year of service is hard and New York is an intense city where calm and peace of mind are increasingly challenging for me to find. But that does not negate the little gems of love that I have witnessed and experienced over the last six months.
When packing for my move to New York, I tried to pack simply. But I also wanted to look as little like a tourist as possible. Because of this, I chose to bring a smaller leather backpack I bought in Italy as my daily bag. Unfortunately, this bag failed me miserably. Within three days, my shoulders were wrenching with pain because the dainty straps were created for photo shoots and not for carrying a 32-ounce water bottle daily, among other things.
When the left strap completely broke off after only two weeks, I panicked slightly, since a new backpack was not budgeted in my volunteer stipend. I explained this to a friend here in New York and he matter-of-factly told me, "Here, have this one. I have another."
He picked up a backpack off the floor next to his bed that he obviously used daily and handed it to me. There was absolutely no need for him to give me, for free, a nice, sturdy and trendy backpack. Yet he did so willingly.
Sometimes moments of kindness aren't as clear-cut. Being from California, I owned virtually no winter gear — and that stuff is expensive. I had no idea what to buy — there are so many choices and I had so many questions! How cold really is 25 degrees? Marshmallow-floor-length-coat cold? Do people use umbrellas even walking through crowded streets?
I reluctantly prepared to take a financial hit to purchase these necessities since my stipend would not cover them. But I didn't want to purchase anything preemptively. I wanted to arrive in the city and get a better gauge of what I would actually need before purchasing.
When I arrived at our apartment for the year, I found a puffy, warm winter coat hanging in the closet. Someone I didn't know, a volunteer from the previous year, had left it behind. I have worn this coat every day that the temperature fell to 35 degrees or below.
Did that person leave the coat intentionally for the next volunteer cohort to use? Maybe, though I'll never actually know. Even so, this kind gesture has allowed me to manage my first East Coast winter.
Of course, kindness is not always materially based. A few examples: On the first day it snowed here, I was leaving work, and one of my more outspoken and challenging residents taught me how to wrap my scarf and tuck it into my jacket for maximum warmth. When I was crying on the couch homesick, my roommate offered to take a walk with me in the middle of her favorite football team's playoff qualifier game. An acquaintance from college back home kindly reached out to me, welcoming me to the city, and earnestly offered her support throughout my transition.
We begin meetings at Good Shepherd Services with a set of questions. These questions are:
- How am I feeling right now?
- What is my goal for this meeting (or for today, or in general)?
- Who can help me?
In answering this third question, you can pick one person, a specific co-worker or supervisor, a group of people such as those who work your shift, or even an inclusive "everyone."
The most important part of this meeting ritual comes in right after you name who can help you. That person or group of people responds with: "I got you." When said aloud, it's more like, "I gotchu" or even just "Gotchu." This phrase means I am here for you. I will help you.
I have countless people in my life who have "got me," and the ones I have mentioned here are just a few of them. There are countless others.
Are there examples in your life of people who have "got you"? In all of these little moments when we experience kindness from those we love or even strangers, we are also experiencing God.
[Sarabella Muise is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a therapeutic residence for adolescent girls in New York City.]