Last week was Thanksgiving here in the US and today is #GivingTuesday, a nice counterpart to the consumer-driven #BlackFriday and #CyberMonday. I hope you will consider donating to a non-profit organization today. So many of them provide critical help when people are in the midst of disaster and tragedy.
It has been on my mind lately as wildfires have been ravaging California, my home state. Thousands of people are displaced because their homes are piles of ash or their neighborhoods are inhabitable. So far, dozens of people have been confirmed dead, and hundreds more are missing. A dear friend of mine grew up in Paradis, and every member of her family lost their homes along with their family-owned businesses. But despite all this loss, they have found ways to be thankful. They are grateful for having survived. Even though they only had the clothes on their back, they are alive, and that’s something to celebrate. They are also grateful for the firefighters who continue to fight the fires that are still burning today. And they are thankful for family, friends, and volunteers who are helping them put their lives back together. While disasters are tragic, they also bring forth some of the best of humanity as people give support and kindness to strangers.
I had witnessed this last year when my hometown was touched by tragedy as the Thomas Fire raged for weeks, destroying homes and removing much of the vegetation that kept our steep hillsides together. This tragedy led to the devastating January mudslides that swept away homes and lives, and which still bring evacuation notices with every heavy rain (and will for years). People started showing up to help. Not just our local community, although they came out in force, strangers who lived over 100 miles away. They would drive here to spend the weekend digging out the acres of mud and boulders. Called the Bucket Brigade, they kept coming long after the headlines stopped as the news cycle moved on.
I was in the middle of researching the neuroscience of purpose, and I saw a live embodiment of it every day in my community. Our sense of purpose is those deeply held values that serve as our north star. They imbue our lives with a sense of meaning. Purpose is different from happiness. Happiness is that short-lived experience of pleasure–something we all need in our life. However, a sense of purpose or meaning happens in a different part of our brain.
A sense of purpose is what gets you through when all happiness is gone. Anyone who has buried a child can tell you this. When smiling and laughing seems like an ancient memory that you will never enjoy again, the power of purpose is what gets you up every morning and helps you make it through the day. It is also what eventually brings you back to life.
A sense of purpose is what drives our first responders to do the grueling and life-threatening work they do. And it encourages the volunteers who show up to serve those in need. A purpose is what gets survivors through the weeks and months that follow a tragedy. And this sense of purpose is what drives charitable organizations who exist, not to make a profit, but to serve the needs of others.
One of the simplest ways we can all express purpose and thankfulness in our own lives is donating to a charity. Instead of buying that one extra holiday gift, perhaps take part in #GivingTuesday this year, and devote those funds to a broader cause. Stay local by giving to your community’s homeless shelter or food bank, or go national by contributing to public organizations, such American Red Cross or California Community Foundation’s Wildfire Relief Fund. There are lots of international organizations doing great work too like Direct Relief International and Heifer International. If you don’t have enough in your budget, you can still give. Donate your time by volunteering at a nearby animal shelter or soup kitchen. Sign up to become an organ donor. Give blood. The possibilities for good deeds are endless.
Whether the fires or other threats loom large, it also shifts our perspective, reminding us of what’s essential (purpose), and that staying thankful is a choice. Speaking of which, I’m thankful for every one of you, for your commitment to improving yourself, your workplace, and your world. So, take care of yourself, and continue to express your purpose by helping others fulfill their potential.