Friday, April 26, 2013

When Giving is Second Nature

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We live in a cynical world. Doom and gloom can be at seemingly every turn, murder and mayhem, full of celebrity rehab stints and extreme weather bearing down on us every other week. Magazines scream at women to lose all of their baby weight three weeks after they give birth. Parents worry incessantly about what college their children will go to before they are barely out of diapers. Indeed, becoming cynical is not hard. It has become the new normal, if we are not cynical well then maybe we're not being honest. Maybe we're soft, maybe we're naïve. Or so we have become lead to believe. Even people who don't have a lot of problems think they have problems. It's not enough to have a healthy baby anymore you need to have a future All Star, Rhodes Scholar or the most exceptional child on the planet.
Yesterday, I returned from a medical mission with Operation Smile in Panama. The culmination of three and a half years of supporting Operation Smile, I hoped this first trip would help me with my own ongoing challenges as a mother of children with disabilities. I am not ashamed to admit I also eagerly left behind a world of bombs, politicians and guns for Panama. Imagine seeking the respite of the developing world from the first world. My husband and I, my oldest son and my dear friend Kathy Van Zeeland, were each seeking each in our way, inspiration and strength from this community of do gooders in our everyday lives.
Turns out there are whole clusters of anti-cynical people out there and we can all choose to surround ourselves with these people or not. During the course of my PR career I've met my share of do gooders here and there. I've been lucky that way but in my experience the bigger the organization the harder this sense of purpose and purity is to maintain.
On this particular mission, run by Panamanians and a few Americans , we are stationed just outside of Panama's third largest city David. Panamanians are proud, quiet people, not effusive and are extraordinarily calm. All of the organizers and volunteers appear innately positive, innately good or as my 12 year old son said, "Mom, everyone here is so nice." Not just one or two but more than 150 constructive, kind and generous people coming together for common good. Not for ego, not for accolades, not for their own gain, not in a hurry. High school students, doctors, nurses, business people, translators, and more.
This is the happy accident of our trip, this halo effect from watching the calm and comfortable ease of the people I am surrounded by as they administered to the poor and disabled. We bask in the generosity of the mothers who let us hold their children; marvel at the families who wait for hours for their child to be evaluated without one word of complaint despite the incredibly hot and humid conditions. I wonder more than once out loud, how is it so many people can be like this in one place? They are grateful for the care but that is not the interesting or incredible part. They are stoic but not mad or impatient. This same scene in the modern world would play out very differently.
My husband observes that it is due in no small measure to the leadership of the founders which has attracted so many like minded people, success that is based on doing well for others. The shepherds of this mission are Operation Smile's founders Dr. Bill Magee and his wife Kathy Magee. They are understated, effortless and patient. During the trip, we bear witness to several poignant moments where a parent brings a severely disabled child to Dr. Magee to evaluate. These parents have made a pilgrimage just to see Dr. Magee for his advice, help and benevolence. And he delivers. With referrals, with advice, with hope. He doesn't know that I am watching him because he is unencumbered by arrogance. Because of my own children's struggles I am exquisitely sensitive to these parents and I am mesmerized by his aura of hope. Something all too often our modern medical establishment has become wary of prescribing. At the end of the day, he is laughing and dancing with the rest of the volunteers thanking everyone for their work, genuinely enjoying this experience which he has probably done hundreds of times over the organization's 30 year history across 60 countries.
For the small group I am traveling with, we welcome these kindnesses into our own lives. We experience firsthand the phenomenon and power of kindness doled out freely by the volunteers and gratefully returned by the families and the patients. Hope not guarantees. Simple gestures -- a mission organizer explaining to our 12 year old son Zack how important it is that he is here helping and why it matters; a plastic surgeon explaining his work in detail while Kathy observes a difficult procedure in the operating room, a child squealing with delight when we give her one of the Three Little Bears we have come to share. I can feel myself wanting to be a better person with each passing day. Wanting to continue to move outside my comfort zone is one thing; thinking about making tangible changes in everything you do is another thing.
Like most people, I am not unburdened by the curve balls life has thrown at us. I have bitten my tongue on more than one occasion when someone tells me 'God only gives you what you can handle.' I am most certain that God did not intend for my family or anyone's family to suffer because they can handle it. Not long ago Bill Magee told me "you will see, your boys have been given a gift." Watching Bill and Kathy I now believe it.
To be the parent of a child with a disability all too often means the future is your enemy, the future is frightening. We all have reasons why we might support different charities; my reasons for helping Operation Smile are purely selfish. I am looking for fulfillment, to help me understand my purpose and to give my children a community where they are welcomed openly. I have been looking for it desperately like water in the desert and I am so happy to have found it. Just before I went on my trip, the New York Times Magazine, coincidentally chronicled this sentiment in their article on March 27th, 2013 titled, 'Giving is the Secret to Getting Ahead'.
In the article, Adam Grant, 31, the youngest-tenured and highest-rated professor at Wharton, believes and demonstrates that 'helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity.' In other words, giving freely can make you happy and successful. Period.
I could share the NY Time's article with Dr. Magee and his wife Kathy but I don't need to. For them, it is second nature, their success is a living breathing thing. My mission, my hope, is to share this with my children. I have seen their future and it is spectacular.

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