Four Dollars and a Tweet

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:

Four dollars


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.

The Lobster Fund, complete with glitter embellishments.

The Lobster Fund, complete with glitter embellishments.



Learning from Vacation…about Work

The first two weeks of August my family went on a camping road trip from our home in Maine to my brother-in-law’s wedding near San Diego.  It was the first two week vacation I’d  taken in at least five years.  It won’t be that long before I do it again.

Here are are a few lessons I learned  (or was reminded of ) while on the road.

You see differently close up and open.

I’ve come to think of myself as a homebody because I spend so much time in and around my house.  I am NOT a homebody!  I’m an introvert who telecommutes.  I love new experiences, traveling, and being with people.   Attending to inner and outer worlds is important for balance.   Daily routines need shaking up with adventure.

There’s so much adventure to be had out there, in the real world, without an internet connection or device.  In 15 days we  drove 7,463 miles and were in 24 states.  Though we had a destination every day, we were totally open to the experiences of the road- good and bad.  We had our share of both. Getting out of “my” world helped me see the rest of it more clearly.  It’s all so beautiful and interconnected.

We saw purple clouds in Pennsylvania and a brush fire in Indiana.  We toured Mount Rushmore with hundreds of bikers and traded  stories with a couple from Quebec. I saw bathroom with graffiti that said, “You’re Beautiful. Love Yourself”, and a road sign to No Name Rest Area.  Our car was surrounded by sheep in Wyoming and corn and clouds in Minnesota.    We saw prairie dogs, elk, and fireflies.  My eyes welled with tears at the ancient majesty of the Rocky Mountains and the ecological misery left by mining operations.   We camped in Kentucky!

A few bits of beauty

A few bits of beauty

My favorite place is outside.

I’ve always been an outdoorsy kind of gal.  I grew up camping, hiking, cycling, and playing in the dirt. For the better part of 2 weeks we slept in our tent with the top off, feeling the breeze and watching the stars. Being close to nature brings me closer to myself.  I  forget this because there so many other “important things” needing my attention indoors.  Returning to indoor life was unexpectedly difficult.  I had to challenge my own assumptions and habits about being inside.  With the help of extension cords, the deck is a viable morning office. Lunch–take it outside, maybe have a picnic. Card games, board games, puzzles, reading, crochet- all possible outside.   It feels good to end the day by stepping outside, taking a deep breath and saying good night to the stars. Try it!

All the "entertainment" I need.

All the “entertainment” I need, especially those sheep.

Less stuff brings more ease.

In two weeks we camped, visited family, and attended a destination wedding at a fancy-schmancy resort.  Everything we needed for these diverse experiences fit in the back of our small car. Our house was a tent and the “kitchen” fit in a milk crate.

We ate simply and packed healthy snacks. Though we had some fast food,  we usually found  grocery stores for supplies, making sandwiches for lunch and dinner in camp. Our camp dinners were delicious: spaghetti and meat balls, brats on the grill,  shrimp gnocchi. (OK, once the day went horribly wrong and we had to choke down canned “Chinese” “food” in the dark.  The dark was a blessing.  Let’s not speak of this again. )

One small duffle bag and carry-on sized  suit case carried clothes my daughter and I. We still had more than we needed. I enjoy having  limited clothing options when we camp and have since gutted my closet.   This feels good.

I use research to help people.

I brought only three books and didn’t open any of them the first week of the journey.  The second week (on my birthday, actually), I read a decidedly work-related book.  I kept track of every instance where the authors identified the need for more research, a gap in knowledge, or an opportunity to translate research from one setting to another.  Highlight after highlight my excitement grew.

After finishing a book about personal talents and passions that I’d started and stopped months ago, something occurred to me.   Every job I’ve ever loved has involved research. Much as I love conducting research and learning about new theories and approaches,  generating new knowledge is not enough.  Research should help people.   This is why I connect so strongly to the applied social sciences and scholar/practitioner professions.  Action researchers, evaluators, designers, social workers, nurses, writers, teachers, librarians. We all use research to help people.  So simple and obvious. It felt profound at the time. Perhaps it was from spending so much time at elevation.

Being away from my job for two weeks reminded me that there are any number of work related experiences that would serve others and bring me joy.  I don’t have do this work,  in this way,  in this organization.  As it happens, I enjoy what I do, how I do it, and the people I work with.  They’re bright and wise and thoughtful and creative  and daring and caring and dedicated and fun. We help brilliant people find new ideas, work together, and take risks.  My job is to help us do that better.

It’s an adventure worth coming back for.

By posting this picture I do not in any way condone drawing on rocks, even to make a smiley face.

By posting this picture I do not in any way condone drawing on rocks, even to make a smiley face.

What did you learn on your summer vacation?