I think most people have moments in their life that profoundly affect who they are and who they will become. Perhaps a kid decides to become a doctor after a memorable experience in the hospital or a kid’s life long passion for theater is sparked by their first trip to a Broadway musical. I truly think this is also the case with our activism and how we view our role in making the world a better place.
I had such an experience and I remember it like yesterday, which is a really cliche way to drive home just how trapped in my mind it remains even almost 20 years later. In high school I had a spark. I don’t know where it came from or remember what prompted it, but I felt an urge to help people. I wanted to create a club in my high school specifically devoted to service. I called it SMILE- the acronym stood for ‘Serving Many Individual Lives Everyday’. Granted, that is cheesy as hell and probably could have used some adult input, but I digress. Since I went to a Catholic all girls school you would think this urge would be readily accepted. It was not. In fact, it was extremely difficult to get off the ground and find a faculty mentor to help me. Finally, our director of ministry, which, despite sounding like something out of a Harry Potter movie was no where near as cool, agreed to help. Our first project was a food drive. During Thanksgiving. At a Catholic School. There is literally no easier service project than a food drive. Despite the lack of support from the staff, I managed to collect a ton of food. We stored it in the chapel. It seemed to be turning out great and my spark was growing. Then the dean and the director of ministry told me that I needed to remove all the food by the end of the next day because they were having an Open House and the chapel needed to “presentable”. Looking back it seems preposterous that a CATHOLIC school would be ashamed of showing that their students are doing a food drive. Seriously WTF. I remember the feeling of deflation. I also remember feeling that I didn’t have a car, but my friend did so she helped me bring ALL the food to my house where I would store it until the food pantry would accept it as they were only open for donations on certain days. I stored it in my living room. This was the proverbial turning point and one I wished had turned out differently. My parents, specifically my mom, was fed up with piles of boxes and bags in her living room and told me to get rid of them. I remember the weight of the bags and the boxes as I carried each one up the flight of stairs to my bedroom. I remember them staying in my already cramped room for a couple days until the drop off day when I took each bag and box down the flight of stairs again and into my friend’s car. We dropped off the food to the grateful pantry and that was the last service project I ever did in high school. The SMILE club never met again. The spark had been extinguished.
So what’s the point of this rather pathetic story? There were a couple moments here that my spark could have been nurtured into something great. Mr. ‘I don’t remember his name’ could have stood up for me and threw himself into helping my club succeed. He could have offered HIS office or car as a holding place for the food if the dean refused to let it stay in the chapel. But he didn’t. He didn’t want to be bothered with some student’s service project. My mother could have looked past the embarrassing clutter and let that food stay in the living room and could have told me how proud she was that I did this for other people. She didn’t. I remember her yelling how awful the room looked when she opened the door to people. She’s an awesome mom and this is truly ONE stain on her otherwise pretty damn remarkable parenting. I mean look at me, right? and maybe there was a damn good reason for her discouragement and frustration, but it didn’t matter at the time. It didn’t matter to me that she may have had a reason- all that mattered was this spark was not nourished when it was most fragile. And that’s the point- as parents we get these tiny moments where we either will extinguish our children’s spark or fan it into something amazing and powerful. Perhaps your child wants to give a dollar to a homeless person on the street or perhaps they want to buy a toy at the store to donate to a class collection. Please recognize those moments when they present themselves. It might be easier to just hurry your kid along or tell them not to worry about it right now. I know we are busy and life is hectic, but you never know what moment will be the moment that shapes who they become. So we must be on guard for chances to nurture these tiny sparks of compassion and altruism when we see them flicker. They are the chances we get to make our children into adults who will change the world for better, who think outside of themselves and work to improve the lives of others. We are raising the next generation and they are watching what we do and what we praise them for. Do we praise them only when they score a goal, clean a room, earn an A? What about when they help someone? When they take a moment to be kind?
Our country seems to be lacking in basic compassion lately. I see this among adults who argue that a poor mom shouldn’t be allowed to get food stamps. I see it among kids who seem to care only about themselves and their feelings. It has become an epidemic of selfishness that we, as parents, must combat. Our activism today will mean nothing if tomorrow’s generation is apathetic to a fellow human’s plight. Nurture the spark in your children or better yet, light the fuse yourself.