On Giving

Recently, I became acquainted with a young Afghan refugee who has been resettled in the US. She’d only been in the US a few days when I met her on a bitterly cold day in February. I had no idea what she might have or need, so I brought a scarf and warm mittens, some toiletries, tea and snacks. The resettlement agency had given her appropriate winter clothes. Within a few weeks they’d found an apartment for her and given her basic furnishings.

Despite our age difference (she’s 24 and I’m in my sixties), we got on well. She had worked with the US embassy and her English is good. I’ve tutored immigrants learning English for years and am aware of some common cultural disconnects. So much of teaching English involves explaining American history and culture as well as grammar and punctuation. My intention is to be a friend, someone she can trust with questions about confusing customs.

When I mentioned meeting her, a number of women I knew immediately asked what household items she might need. Like me, they’ve accumulated a lot of stuff over the years and would be happy to give it to someone who can use it. We all have so much. We’d never miss an extra end table, coffeepot, or winter coat. I had the same impulse, but thought I’d wait to see what she wanted and needed. 

Her apartment’s furnishings seem sparse by American standards, but she was delighted by her things. She’s accustomed to sharing the kitchen with several families and told me she’s never had so many clothes. I recalibrated my instinct to offer her a bunch of stuff. Should I push my aesthetic on her? Maybe she prefers simplicity. Would the donations from my friends and me make her feel inadequate or signal that she seems poor by American standards? 

I’m aware I often overthink things. Maybe she’d love to have more for her apartment. The simple generous reaction friends have had—how can I help—is a good one. Why wouldn’t we help when we have so much? Shouldn’t we?

Yet I know the dynamic between givers and receivers can feel unbalanced. Uncomfortable for the recipient. I’ve already seen my new friend’s deep sense of hospitality. When I visited her and another Afghan family she’s friends with, they insisted on serving me a full meal. Although I wasn’t hungry, I knew it would be rude to refuse, so I ate with them. Similarly, when I gave her the handful of things culled from my closet and kitchen at our first meeting, she gave me a new pair of earrings she had, something I suspect she’d bought for herself.

I try to think how I’d feel if the roles were reversed. Would I simply be grateful, because I needed things and someone cared enough to help? Or would I feel awkward about the charity? In time would my pride be pricked so I became resentful? Trying to be sensitive, not stingy is confusing.

In Praise of the Moderately Interesting Job

During recent conversations with a 22-year-old, a 30-year-old, and several mothers of millennial and Gen Z adults, I’ve become aware of a phenomenon affecting many young adults: dismay, disappointment, and a persistent sense of failure at not having a job they’re passionate about.

I’ve heard hints of this from the millennials in my life, but Anne Helen Peterson’s book, Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, crystalized my understanding, especially her chapter, “Do What You Love and You’ll Still Work Every Day for the Rest of Your Life.” Her book discusses in depth how cultural definitions of success and workplace expectations have become impossible to achieve, which leads to burnout.

I’ve zeroed in on one of her observations—the fallacy that if you work hard, go to a good college, engage in lots of extracurriculars and internships, and are passionate about your work, you’ll land a wonderful satisfying job. What too many people are discovering is that fulfilling jobs you can be passionate about are rare. Unfortunately, American culture has made “being passionate about work” seem like a realistic goal. In short, young adults have been conned. 

When faced with the realization they aren’t passionate about their jobs and can’t even imagine a job they would be passionate about, they feel like losers. Hidden in the language of “passionate about work” is the warped premise that you are your job. This frustrates and saddens me. Why have we foisted ridiculous standards like “Do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and “Don’t settle for less” on workers? 

I liked the work I did and occasionally I was passionate about a project, but most of the time my work as a marketing communications copywriter could be called a Moderately Interesting Job. My passions (insofar as I’d use the overblown word, “passion” to describe anything I do) lie elsewhere. Some people are passionate about their work and I applaud them, but far more people are not. Work is just work, and that’s a totally valid view.

I’m definitely NOT advocating that people should aspire to crummy jobs in which the pay is low, the schedule is erratic, there’s no opportunity to advance, and benefits are nonexistent. For decades, too many American employers have gotten away with treating employees poorly. I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for people who are walking away from that work.

But if I were queen of the world, I’d characterize work as one potentially fulfilling aspect of your life, a necessity, but not what defines a person’s worth. Often what people are passionate about exists away from the job. You can’t make a living being a sports fan, enjoying the outdoors, or spending time with family and friends. If those activities make you happy, they’re a success—they don’t have to be lucrative. 

If I could, I’d retool American culture’s expectations about work. To me, Moderately Interesting Work or Uninspiring Work with Fun Coworkers or The Job You Don’t Mind Doing are worthy goals. Achievable. Feel free to find your passion elsewhere!

Beyond Peshtigo

The Great Chicago Fire began October 8, 1871. More than 100,000 residents were left homeless and 300 lost their lives. Help flowed in nationally and internationally to rebuild the city.

North of Chicago, the largest and deadliest forest fire in United States history took place the same day in Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Over 1,200,000 acres (1,875 square miles) burned. The number of people killed can only be estimated because church and government records burned in the fire. Some of the 1,500 to 2,500 men, women and children would never be identified. The fires were so intense that some victims were totally incinerated. 

Many of the Peshtigo fire victims were immigrant farmers and small-town dwellers. Belgian and German settlers bought acres of cheap land to farm only to discover thick forests covered the area. Along with the railroads and timber industry, farmers slashed through the trees and left much wood on the ground. It was not unusual to see several small fires burning. Even ships in Green Bay and Lake Michigan experienced visibility problems from smoke. In 1871 drought dried fields and wood waste. October 8 a cold front moved in and whipped flames from many small fires into a giant firestorm with temperatures of about 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

People who hid in their wells or storm cellars died. People who tried to outrun the flames in their wagons or buggies died. Some burned, some suffocated. Others drowned while seeking refuge in rivers or ponds. The flames formed a tornado of fire that tossed buildings into the air. Peshtigo was burned to the ground with only two buildings remaining. Fires burned on both side of Green Bay touching Marinette and stopping short of Sturgeon Bay.

The Belgian Heritage Center remembers the fire each October and the dramatic impact it had on its community. Thick wooded lands were transformed into barren acres. Wooden farmhouses were replaced by red brick buildings. Roadside chapels stood near many homes. 

My Belgian ancestors lived in the Peshtigo fire area. This year I find a strange comfort in the reality that awful fires are not a modern experience but have devastated parts of our country before. Instead of seeing our current wildfires as one more sign that we are heading toward doom, history is reminding me that there can be more living on the other side of disaster. Learning from the disaster to make the rebuilding smarter is the challenge.

Broken Dreams

Aniya Allen’s funeral was June 2, 2021.  Six years old, the newspapers said she wore a sparkling tiara in her small pink coffin. The second to die of three young children caught in gun violence in Minneapolis this May. One is still in hospital. On a local television news show, young Minneapolis school children talked about being afraid to play outside or go to the park or to see friends. They asked, begged, demanded that older kids and adults put down guns and give peace a chance and kids a chance to grow and dream. 

Unfortunately these two families are not the only ones who have lost their very young children to the senseless and unexpected gun fighting of young men with disagreements that should have been resolved with discussions, even strong words, maybe fists. Not guns shot in an alley. Not a shootout on a street corner where parents drove home from grocery stores or taking a child to McDonalds. These babies cannot be replaced, these families’ broken dreams cannot be rebuilt.

According to Brady every year 7,957 children and teens are shot in the United States. More than 1,600 will die from gun violence. Gun sales in the United States grew over 65% increase in 2019 and continue strong in 2020. Like icebergs, there is no true tally of general U.S. gun possession that accounts for arms purchased illegally or stolen. 

A child’s funeral is about the saddest gathering on earth. Eulogies for a child describe their smiles, their bright eyes, their wonderful laugh, their love of sports or dancing or swimming, their helpfulness, of pride in being a big sister or brother. All the ways a young child’s life should be talked about when families gather for birthdays or holidays, but not in a solemn church or temple service while mourning the one resting in a small pink coffin.

We have all lost Aniya Allen and Trinity Ottoson-Smith and the other 1,600 children and teens dead because of gun violence.  So many broken dreams.

Healing Thoughts

What do you say when acquaintances mention on social media that they or someone in their family has a major health issue? Often, I see some version of this phrase, “Sending you healing thoughts.” I’m curious about this trend.

In recent years prayer seems to have morphed. People used to say, “I’ll pray for you,” meaning I’ll ask God/Yahweh/Allah to intervene on your behalf. Now when trouble strikes, the default phrases often are, “Thinking of you. Sending you healing energy.” 

I wonder if the change comes from a wish to be respectful of another’s spiritual beliefs, however informal or nontraditional those might be?

Or maybe people say those things when they aren’t sure of the recipient’s religious beliefs or if old-fashioned prayer will be appreciated.

Perhaps our language of concern has changed because fewer people practice the faith they were raised in. Judging from statistics, that’s a lot of Americans. Church membership is declining.

For formerly religious people, “Sending healing thoughts” may be more accurate than saying, “You’re in my prayers.”

Or perhaps social media just doesn’t feel like the place to mention something as personal as religious beliefs.

As a no-longer-practicing Catholic, I’m likely to say, “Sending you strength.” As if I can (I have no idea how or why this would work, but I want it to). At very least, I hope my friend will hear my sympathy and concern. 

Have you noticed this shift? How do you respond when you learn an acquaintance is dealing with a health issue?