It’s no wonder that Americans feel more cynical about the present and less hopeful for the future. The political divisions in our country are increasingly fostering distrust, hatred and even violence. Untreated mental health and substance abuse problems are skyrocketing. Rising wages are not keeping up with rapidly accelerating inflation. And the global pandemic feels like it will never end.
Despite it all, there is good happening in this world. It can be hard to notice the good, or even believe that it is happening, when we are inundated with stories and images reflecting the darkness all around us. So how do we find the good, the inspiring, the meaningful aspects of our world? Perhaps we need to look beyond the headlines and look toward people in our community working to improve the lives of others.
The late psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, wrote about the meaning of life in his highly regarded book, “Man’s Search For Meaning.” He wrote:
“We can discover this meaning of life in three different ways: (1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.”
Frankl espoused the belief that even under painful and tragic conditions, it is possible to experience meaning and triumph in our lives.
I’ve seen this firsthand over the past two years and have been inspired by thousands of Pittsburgh community members who move beyond their personal difficulties to extend a helping hand to others who need support; by doing so, they become part of something larger than themselves.
The impact of people doing good in our community has been especially evident in the last few months with the ongoing Afghan refugee crisis. Just two weeks ago, I had the good fortune of coordinating an unusual experience with 35 volunteers from the UPstander community of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh’s Center for Loving Kindness, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Repair the World Pittsburgh. The morning before Christmas, we delivered 850 meals from Salem’s Restaurant to Afghan refugees living in all parts of our city. I knew this day would be meaningful to the people we serve, but I had no idea how personally fulfilling it would be to the volunteers and to me.
In preparing for this day, I was completely focused on logistics, coordination and the many other impersonal tasks involved in setting this up. On the day itself, however, I found myself in a sea of emotions. I was in awe of the generosity and thoughtfulness of the volunteers. I was impressed with the meticulous organization and caring attitude of Salem’s Restaurant. And I was touched deeply by the gratitude expressed by the refugees themselves.
This act of kindness by our community helped take care of newly arrived refugees, it helped my JFCS staff enjoy time off for their holiday weekend, and it helped spread a message that our Pittsburgh community cares about our new neighbors and wants them to feel welcome here.
But the acts of kindness don’t end with this one activity.
Individuals make a difference. One of our staff members recently noticed that their coworkers were overwhelmed with the current Afghan crisis, and organized a coffee and breakfast grab-and-go to help lift spirits.
Private donors make a difference. This month, dozens of private donors purchased books for refugee youth through a City of Asylum wish list. These books will help children learn to read, practice English and enrich their understanding of the world.
Partners make a difference. The Salvation Army recently donated 200 toys from its annual toy drive for refugee youth, most of whom were not able to bring toys with them from their native countries.
The foundation community and government makes a difference. Because of the commitment of local government and leaders to make our city a place where people from all over the world can belong, this year Pittsburgh was named the 12th Certified Welcoming City in the United States. And we’ve seen just how welcoming Pittsburgh can be through the coming together of people all over our region to welcome and support Afghan refugees.
There are many more stories like this that few people hear about, buried in the mountain of worrying, negative news.
We all can be a part of the good work happening in our community. Kindness and thoughtfulness can have a significant impact when shown toward just a few people or even a single individual. Pick up some groceries for an elderly or sick neighbor. Offer to babysit for a struggling young couple that hasn’t been able to get out for a while. Grab some extra coffee for your co-workers (or deliver some snacks if your colleagues are working remotely). You’d be surprised how much people appreciate an offer of support.
There are so many, incredible things that are happening throughout our community every single day. People are stepping up to the challenge of creating meaning by helping others. And nothing — not even a global pandemic — can stop this work from happening. The kindness, devotion, and passion of our neighbors to help one another doesn’t grab headlines, but it grabs hearts and reflects the things that truly make life worthwhile.
Have a healthy and meaningful new year. PJC
Jordan Golin, Ph.D., is president and CEO of JFCS Pittsburgh.