Last Sunday as I was waiting for the water to boil for my cream of wheat I decided to glance at Twitter.
I came across a tweet from New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof about this opinion piece on the refugee crisis in Europe. He admonished, “If you don’t see yourself or your family members in those images of today’s refugees, you need an empathy transplant”.
A lot of us do see ourselves when we see others’ suffering. That’s what empathy is: I hurt and you hurt with me. It’s a biological response. We can’t help but hurt at the sight of so much loss and trauma.
We don’t want to hurt. It may feel easier to turn away especially when there are so people needing help. “They’re so far away,” we think. What can one person do? We protect ourselves by closing off and shutting down. With the constant barrage of suffering that comes at us through the media we get a lot of practice shutting down.
Kristof reminds us not to shut down.
After reading and retweeting the story, I scrolled down on my Twitter feed. This is what I saw:
Who would think fast food chicken nuggets is a better way to spend $4 than donating to help the refugees!? No one, of course. But that’s not the choice we have before us each day. Our daily choices are a lot more complicated and unconscious than that.
I became furious. Furious at chicken nuggets, french fries, and all their retweets. Furious at frivolous spending when there are people in real need. I could think of 100 better uses for $4 than buying fast food! (Empathy turned to anger and disgust.)
But I wasn’t angry at chicken nuggets or french fries or fast food.
I was angry at myself. How many times have I spent $4 frivolously? I don’t know, but I’m sure it was enough times to make a handsome donation to UNHCR or any number of other charities.
I’m fortunate that I can be occasionally careless at the $4 level. We found nearly $4 under the mats last time we cleaned out the car. Even though our family rarely eats fast food I couldn’t be sure our annual spending to help others was greater than our fast food expenditures. Ouch again! It seemed wrong, out of line with our values, and entirely within my ability to change. (Enter compassion.)
Compassion, the desire to turn empathy into action that relieves suffering, is a complex process that science is only beginning understand. While the compassionate response is complicated, strengthening our capacity for compassion through deliberate training is straightforward. Strengthening compassion allows me to feel my friend’s pain and deliberately put my attention and energy towards wishing her joy and for her suffering to be relieved. Practicing compassion helps us no longer feel helpless. It’s a practice I do often, especially when I am not sure how else I can help a situation.
Sending compassion is a good start. I’d received a wake-up call from the Twitterverse. I was compelled to do something with more impact than sending compassion and more enduring than a donation.
How could I turn this Sunday morning awakening into a new practice for myself? More importantly, how could I do a better job of making generosity a routine practice for our daughter? Giving benefits the giver and the receiver. Even giving small amounts can increase happiness. I want her to experience that. Then it came to me: The Lobster Fund!
What is The Lobster Fund?
The Lobster Fund is an imaginary piggy bank invented one day when our daughter (I’ll call her “Ladybug”), found a coin on the floor and handed it to her dad. She was at an age where we saw all coins more as choking hazards than currency. “I’ll put it in the Lobster Fund”, he said, explaining that with enough coins we could buy a lobster. Even though we live in Maine, lobster is reserved for special occasions and sharing with visitors. We all love lobster. It stuck. Since then any time Ladybug finds a coin, she brings it to us for the Lobster Fund. The coins usually wind up on a desk or in a pocket. The money we found on the bottom of the car was in a pile on the mantel.
I asked Ladybug what she thought about making the Lobster Fund real. She could keep half the money she collected and give the other half to kids who needed help. In the kitchen we’d previously set aside a container to be repurposed but hadn’t found a use for it yet. I washed it and told Ladybug we’d decorate it for the Lobster Fund when it dried.
A week passed, but I didn’t forget about our plan.
Today the Lobster Fund is real. The first contribution was the pile of coins on the mantel. I took a box of coins out of my closet and put it on my desk for my own small offerings. A few coins here and a few dollars there will add up. I look forward to seeing how much we save. I’ve already chosen one local and one international charity to receive the money I save. Ladybug will get to choose where to donate her Lobster Fund money when she fills the container.
As she deposited the first coins I asked Ladybug how we would spend the money in the Lobster Fund she said, “It’s for kids for who don’t have things”.
I had to remind her that she gets to keep half of what she saves, but not that it was almost time to watch the Green Bay Packers.