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.



Four Other Valentine’s Day Gifts

Not everyone goes in for the unaffordable expectation version of Valentine’s Day.  Love is worth celebrating.   You don’t need a romantic partner or Scrooge McDuck’s money bin to spread Valentine’s Day love.

1. Give the gift of  your attention.

There’s a freedom that comes from conscious, wholehearted listening.  By deeply listening, we free ourselves from the constant chatter in our minds and allow another person to feel the experience of being truly seen and heard. I have been submitting a listening self-assessment each day for the past few weeks as part of my ULab homework.  Evaluators say, “What gets measured gets done”.  In this case, “What gets measured gets noticed”. Paying attention to listening has been a gift to myself and those around me.  Try it.

2. Start a conversation on the topic of love, compassion, and forgiveness.

The Fetzer Institute created a set of 52 Love, Compassion and Forgiveness Cards.  You can download them for free.     Each card has a quote on one side and a conversation point and an idea for action on the other.

A Love card quote says:

There is an old South African proverb that says the reason two antelope walk together is so that one can blow the dust from the other’s eyes. This sort of friendship enables joy.  Mark Nepo

A Forgiveness card poses the questions:

What role does empathy play in forgiveness? When have you been able to put yourself in anther’s shoes.

The associated action suggests, “Bring to mind a person who has hurt or offended you. Ask yourself: What qualities does this person possess that I would like to eliminate in myself”?

3. Consider sharing a crowd-sourced mindfulness-based Valentine.

Parallax Press engaged their readers to create 13 Zen inspired Valentine’s.  My favorites are #7 and #12.

 4. Tweet some love to your favorite non-profit organization or charity using the hashtag #npValentine.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has images available on their Facebook page you can tweet or email.   The Twitter feed will make you smile.   As a bonus, the Chronicle has an opinion piece by Jennifer and Peter Buffett about the place of love and compassion in philanthropy.  The Buffets say:

In a world in which everything is a commodity, we’re going to try to turn money into love. Jennifer and Peter Buffett

I sincerely hope they do. Every day people can do this too.  My friend Jennifer Iacovelli is on a mission to turn all of us into philanthropists. You can also visit ServiceSpace and explore the gift economy in action.

How are you going to spread love in the world this Valentine’s Day?

Chocolate is a totally acceptable answer. 🙂

Learning JUST for fun

Hi, my name is Anne and I’m a recovering edu-holic.

I’m addicted to reading, learning, courses, credentials, anything with a syllabus, merit badge, gold star or that might result in a new strange combination of letters at the end of my name.  If I’m not doing these things, I am researching these things for….for I don’t know why.

It’s been over 5 years since my last credential.  At the end of 2013 I got twitchy about that. I’d participated in webinars, courses and conferences but it didn’t feel enough. I was about to spend a lot of money to take a test and get a credential just because I could and felt I should. Not because I deeply wanted to.

At best that’s nonsense. At worst it’s crazypants.

I took a deep breath and walked away.

I declared (to myself) a moratorium on professional development without a personal connection for 2014. I decided to learn, read, and study purely for the joy of it- not for approval, credentials, recognition or because something would make sense on my LinkedIn profile.

What a relief!

(OK, to be fair, I still LOOK at courses and certificates and degrees, etc.   But, I have given myself a break from the suffering and frenzy that can come with it. That’s progress.)

A few weeks ago I signed up for my first MOOC (Massively Open Online Course)- The Science of Happiness through the Greater Good Science Center. We’re studying happiness, connection, compassion, kindness, forgiveness, reconciliation, mindfulness, and gratitude from an interdisciplinary perspective. The course draws on neuroscience, evolution, physiology, complexity, anthropology and psychology and sprinklescphilosophy, religion and humanities throughout. More relates to evaluation and the conference our program is having on Collective Behavior  than I anticipated or intended. Oops!   These things happen.

Each week we’re invited to try evidenced-based practices to increase our happiness.  Putting research into practice?  Yes, PLEASE!

Through the course I found out that KindSpring was starting a 21-day kindness challenge on October 2nd.   I signed up for that too.  Why not? It’s a way to strengthen kindness muscles and find new ways to be kind  with a group of people.  For Day 1 the kindness challenge was “Pay forward a surprise treat”.   We left a home-made banana muffin and note for our postal carrier.

Kindness matters


It doesn’t matter what course is. It could have been sewing, or watercolor painting, or a foreign language, or astronomy or ancient Greek literature or swimming lessons.

The point is that we ought to give ourselves a break from achievement and learn for fun more often.

Yes, I’m still eying the John’s Hopkins data science specialization through Coursera so I might finally learn R.  But not this year.

Right now I’m selfishly studying happiness to make the world a better place.

It doesn’t have to make sense.

It’s fun. It might make a difference.

That’s good enough.