It’s an exhilarating time of year. From cooking feasts and baking holiday treats to finding that perfect, exquisite gift for your loved ones, the days hum with activity while the nights sing with the pleasures of enjoying the company of family and friends.
During the delightful but frantic holiday season, it’s all too easy to forget that this time of year is also the most difficult for many. Anxiety rises. Depression skyrockets. Futility soars. What felt like a mere case of loneliness during the warmer months blooms into a sense of total desolation. And such despair feels magnified when one is surrounded by what seems like the effortless cheer of others.
I was reminded of this just the other day when I stopped for coffee while out running errands. I was focused on all of the tasks that needed to be completed before the holidays arrived—I had relatives coming into town and meals to prepare and parties to attend and drycleaning to drop off and beds to make and presents to wrap and groceries to buy and wine to pick up for that evening’s shindig. The sheer number of items on my to-do list overwhelmed my ability to stop and feel thankful for having the opportunity to be busy. Shopping bags up to my wrists, my phone blowing up, a cup of coffee balanced precariously in my hand, I almost failed to notice an elderly man who was tucked into the back of the café alone. His hands quaked as he reached for the empty cup in front of him. Grief lined his face. He looked around the café—at children bouncing up and down in glee and teenagers clustered together talking excitedly and men and women preoccupied with their phones—with a heartrending mix of bewilderment and sorrow. He appeared cold. He looked like he had nowhere to go. Consumed by my own concerns and my impossible wish to make sure that my family would have The Best Holiday of All Time, it struck me that I had recently failed to acknowledge the misfortune of others.
It might be the most wonderful time of the year, and yet it’s also the most important time of year to count our blessings and assist others in need. Here are five concrete ways to express your empathy for others:
1) Honor a soldier. There are multiple organizations that make it easier than ever to show your gratitude to the men and women stationed worldwide, but I’m particularly fond of the efforts of Operation Shoebox. Founded by a military mom who had five children (and two sons-in-law) deployed around the world, what began as a grass-roots crusade in her living room has grown into a robust campaign that ships 800-1,000 care packages per week. Operation Shoebox offers supporters a variety of ways to demonstrate their appreciation, from monetary donations and organizing local fundraising drives to gather funds for postage to becoming a pen pal with a soldier. To learn more about it, visit https://operationshoebox.com/.
2) Delight a child. Donate to Toys for Tots, or contribute airline miles to the Make a Wish Foundation. Put together a toy drive in your community, or drop off clothes, shoes, and other essentials at your local homeless shelter. To assist on a global level, organizations like No Kid Hungry and Operation Smile offer ways to bring comfort and happiness into the lives of children worldwide.
3) Make good use of the items you no longer need. That KitchenAid mixer, old laptop, and retired ski boots gathering dust in the back of your closet might not mean much to you but could provide joy for someone else. Miss Minimalist offers a comprehensive list of charities that accept gently used items here.
4) Volunteer your time. Soup kitchens and homeless shelters are always in need of extra hands, and residents at nursing homes are especially appreciative of company during the holiday season. The Humane Society welcomes volunteers as well, while Catchafire matches professionals with nonprofit organizations where they can share their skills with others.
5) Reach out to those around you who are in need. Write a thoughtful, encouraging letter to a loved one who is going through a difficult time. Invite that friend who doesn’t have family nearby over for brunch on Christmas Eve. Ask your neighbor who lives alone to accompany you on a walk. Most of all, give your undivided time and attention to those who are especially vulnerable to melancholy this time of year. Sometimes, simply listening is the best gift of all.
I offered that elderly man a smile. His eyes lit up, and the lines on his face diminished, if only briefly. I walked over and wished him a Merry Christmas. Thank you, he said. It was a small gesture, but I hope it went far.
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