When my daughter, Emily, turned seven, I gave her a gift that I'd like to think will have a long-lasting impact on the part she plays in her world. It also profoundly changed the way I look at my community. All this because I set myself a whimsical challenge – one that would, for a couple of months anyway, push at the boundaries of my comfort zone.
What did I do? I dared myself to do a good deed each day – for 50 days straight.
Most of us have a desire to make a difference. In fact, before marriage, career and family took over my life, my volunteer portfolio wasn't too shabby. But somewhere between "I do" and "It's a girl!" my world became small and selfish. My daily activities revolved around the demands of my job and the needs of my family and our household. In my mid-thirties, I accepted that I just wasn't going to be the hero who stamps out world hunger or finds a cure for cancer.
Not that I took much time out to dwell on that. My husband, Ian, and I both work full time while we raise our little girl, Emily. Our daughter's schedule is as hectic as ours, with school and homework, lessons and playdates. On top of all this, Ian is quadriplegic. When hired attendants aren't on hand to help him with routine daily tasks, I'm the one on call.
While I'd love to make the world a better place, amid the chaos of my life, I had become convinced that it takes too much time, money and energy to provide help where it's needed. Since I'm usually in short supply of all three, there wasn't much I could do.
Or so I thought.
A couple of new books on the market got me thinking. Author Judith Levine gave up spending money on anything but dire necessities. American blogger Julie Powell devoted a year to preparing all 524 recipes from Julia Child's 1961 French cookbook. I asked myself, why not take up a similar challenge? But instead of dishing up boeuf bourguignon, I could devote myself to something I believed in, something that my daughter could learn from.
Ian and I have always tried to impress upon Emily the importance of making a contribution to others. We support a foster child in Egypt. We donate our used clothing. We recycle.
And yet, whenever I picked up a stray coffee cup on the street and dumped it in a waste bin, whenever I held the door for an old lady, Emily would invariably ask me: "Why did you do that?" It unsettled me. If random kindness was supposedly part of our family culture, why hadn't Emily learned the language?
So one night at the dinner table I proposed the season of living generously. What would happen if I did a good deed a day, every day, for 50 days? How would it impact other people – and me and my family?
Ian and Emily were immediately enthused. A lively discussion was sparked about what good deeds I might do. "You could save someone from drowning," suggested Emily. "You could leave a basket of cookies at someone's front door, ring the bell and run away."
Page 1 of 3 — on page 2, you'll find out that kindness takes surprisingly little time.
Secretly, I wasn't convinced I could pull it off. Since I live and work in the suburbs, I can go days without seeing a stranger. And I had already settled on some stiff ground rules: When I did a good deed, I couldn't expect anything concrete in return. So favours for friends didn't count – unless done undercover. I also ruled out repeats. Every single one of the 50 good deeds would have to be different from the ones that it followed. But I rolled up my sleeves anyway.
For ideas, I trolled websites of groups such as The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (www.actsofkindness.org). I skimmed newspapers. I researched virtual volunteer opportunities such as those on the website www.nabuur.com, where you can donate your skills online. Then there were things I'd long meant to do, which is how I came to join the bone marrow registry on Day 2. And sometimes the opportunity for doing a good deed simply presented itself. On Day 4, however lame, it was easy enough to give a panhandler a few coins as my husband and I left a restaurant. When I took my daughter to the library on Day 6 to find a three-year-old upchucking her lunch onto the carpet, I helped her mom clean up.
Often, when I woke up with no idea what I'd do that day, I found inspiration right under my nose. On Day 7, while cleaning out the pantry in a desperate bid for more shelf space, I thought of organizing a small food drive in our community. Emily found her wagon, I downloaded guidelines from the food bank's website, and we collected cans and jars from our neighbours. Sure, it meant walking our streets instead of using the time to do much-needed chores at home, but we got some fresh air, chatted up our neighbours and even picked up a playdate for Emily.
Not every good deed was grand. Some days all I did was pick up litter, compliment a stranger on his garden or donate my Canadian Tire "money" to charity. But, if you think about it, each of these acts had the potential to lead to something positive, something bigger.
Other deeds meant setting time aside. I snuck over to my neighbours' house to mow their overgrown lawn while they were at work. I brought used toys to a daycare centre. I pulled weeds at a local school's garden. Surprisingly, the deed didn't usually eat as much time out of my day as I'd thought.
Passing it on
Each day, I'd tell my family about what I'd done, whether it was cleaning dog poo from the lawn of the old lady on the corner, or making an online donation for earthquake victims. This banter around the dinner table was beginning to affect Emily. She announced that she'd started a "good deed contest" with her friends at school. Then one day my daughter came off the school bus with bigger news: She'd launched a Litter Club, prevailing upon her pals to help her pick up garbage from the schoolyard. The idea evolved. When word had got back to the teacher, suddenly the school was announcing a weekly, outdoor litter cleanup. I tingled with pride.
Page 2 of 3 - Read page three to see how doing good deeds can change you in the long run
As the weeks went on, I spotted changes in myself as well. I felt more alert, more aware of my immediate surroundings as well as larger, global issues. At first I was simply keeping a necessary lookout for potential good deeds to fill my quota. After a while, it became habit. Without warning, I started to feel a greater responsibility for my community, no longer sanctioned to stick my head in the sand.
While running errands on Day 41, I stopped in at a coffee shop. I got the attention of a young, tall guy in an apron and dumped some change on the counter. "The next senior who comes in," I said, "tell them the coffee has already been paid for." My cheeks flushed red-hot. I was self-conscious, but determined.
Nevertheless, I couldn't resist checking in the next week to find out what had happened. The same man was there, smiling. "Yeah, the money's been used," he said – rather proudly, I thought. He quickly explained that the change had paid for two seniors' orders – only because he'd added cash from the till. "That was nice of you," I said, astonished. "They really liked it," he replied, grinning broadly. As my daughter mused: "When you do good deeds, it makes other people do good deeds."
By the final week, as I walked to a nursing home in my neighbourhood with an armful of flowers, I realized that I was close to accomplishing what had at first seemed so unattainable. I celebrated Day 50 by making cupcakes and distributing them to neighbours – including one couple who we don't exactly play bridge with every Saturday night. (I explained to Emily: when you turn your enemies into friends, you have no more enemies.)
I was pleased with myself for making it through the 50 days, then stunned and humbled by my analysis: three-quarters of my good deeds had cost no money. The average time they'd taken was 17 minutes each. And, OK, my energy level is still challenged, but my feel-good factor had truly soared.
50 days and counting
Certain practices have since stuck with me: I notice more; I help more; I do many more good deeds than I used to.
And how about my daughter? Her track record speaks for itself. Since those pivotal 50 days she has donated birthday toys to a women's shelter, used her allowance money to buy mosquito netting for a family in Niger and helped raise funds for Christmas toys for needy children.
Recently Emily sacrificed 10 inches of her hair for a charity that makes wigs for sick kids. It was quite a shift from braids to a pixie cut, but my daughter giggled as her long locks fell through the scissors and to the floor.
Emily gets it now: When she sees me help a senior in a store, or bring homemade soup to new parents on our street, she doesn't ask me: "Why?" She's right there beside me, reaching up to ring the doorbell
Take the good deeds challenge
Challenge your family to make this December a season of living generously. Come up with your own list of good deeds that don't cost a dime, such as scraping the ice off a neighbour's car. Then, get out the calendar and mark down what you plan to do each day. You can even encourage some friendly competition among your kids – and with your spouse.
Check out good deed ideas so you can start on your 50 good deeds for 50 days!
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