Each time you travel by plane, you are bound to experience a miracle. As the plane takes off, the busy throng of life is gradually scaling down, as houses melt into cities and cities sink into the patchwork of the earth.
Your spirit is unclamped. That sensation is so overwhelming that I wonder what astronauts (cosmonauts and taikonauts as well, of course) feel when they talk about the moment they saw the earth from space for the first time. You simply want to transcend your individual existence and do something (anything!) of lasting value.
Well, you are made to be great! Master productivity authors like David Allen (of «Getting Things Done» fame) encourage you to take on that 50,000 feet perspective; Stephen R. Covey, author of «The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People» even suggests that you write a mission statement as your personal guideline. Why, then, do intentions fade away as soon as our feet touch the ground again?
I think because transcending your individual existence is not what many people think it is. Rather:
- It requires that you accept roles and responsibilities, not clichés. You need to fully understand what you are committing to. You need to meet expectations. You need to signal to others that they can trust you and depend on you. For lifetime, if necessary. You need to understand that you are dealing with other human beings who have equal dignity and equal rights, even if they don't have equal options in life.
- It requires that you do what it takes, not what you want. You need to fully understand what altruism means. Altruism is what you do, not a fuzzy fantasy about how thankful others may be for what you do.
- It requires that you do what it takes, not what yields publicity or fame. In the words of Harry S. Truman: «It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.» Or, if you prefer Cato the Elder, who lived from 234 BC - 149 BC: «After I'm dead I'd rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one.»
In my country, there is a saying that goes like this: Accomplish at least three things in your lifetime: Build a house. Plant a tree. Have a child. This is probably a personal vision that is shared by many people around the world. Astonishingly, it mentions three achievements that transcend the individual.
Here is what you can do if you think you can't accomplish any of the three.
Building a house when you can't
So you think you'll never have enough money to build or buy a house. It saddens you.
Do you know the famous UNESCO world heritage list of monuments, groups of buildings and sites? Today, it includes 851 outstanding properties located throughout the world, like the Chinese Great Wall, the Taj Mahal in India or the Yosemite National Park in the US.
But did you know that there's also a list of the World Heritage in Danger? It tracks «the property appearing in the World Heritage List for the conservation of which major operations are necessary and for which assistance has been requested», to quote the UNESCO World Heritage Convention. It is shocking how much of our universal heritage is facing obliteration and collapse.
It may happen in your neighborhood, too, where UNESCO is not likely to show up that soon. If you know a local piece of cultural heritage that it really unique, help protect and preserve it. There is a multitude of things you can do and not all of them require funding. To name just three:
- Commit to keeping a piece your local heritage tidy. No fame to gain here. Maybe just laughter, when you're the only one cleaning up after hordes of people who were carelessly dumping their waste. Some visitors, however, may notice that somebody takes care of that special place.
- Instead of a donation, offer your skills to help preserve a property. Whether it is a national park or a monument, you could offer help with repair or maintenance; you could collect and summarize information for visitors and residents alike; you could write to your local government representative and ask for support.
- Become member of or even found a local society for the preservation of a property. Engage in fund raising. Write articles in magazines. Offer regular, guided tours in or around the property. Collect and publish historical information about it. Help others see what fascinates you about it.
Planting a tree when you can't
Are you aware that actually trees are people huggers? They hold on the the soil so winds can't erode it. Forests work like huge sponges, absorbing water that would otherwise flood your streets, or releasing water into arid lands that would otherwise desiccate. When you're hiking in your local hills and mountains, their roots prevent rock slides. Avalanches hit the trees first, not you.
What do you have to offer to the trees? You may quite literally want plant a try. I'm not covering this topic here, there is plenty of advice available online and my only suggestion would be that you talk to a gardener and choose a local species. If you can't plant a tree in any place close to you, for whatever reason, there is still a myriad of things you can do. Let me mention just three of them:
- Participate in the Arbor Day in your country . Learn about the encouraging history of this day and find like-minded people. In many countries, Arbor Day is celebrated by planting trees, sometimes even by reforesting whole areas. Help in the preparation of that day. Learn to tell local species apart. Offer guided tours, to make others familiar with rare trees you've found in your town.
- Learn how you are affected by forest desctruction in countries you didn't know existed. Help stop that destruction by conscious consuming: not buying wood or furniture of unknown or disguised origin, for instance.
- If you can afford it, join director David Attenbrough and buy a piece of the rain forest to save it from being destroyed . He says: «I have been immensely lucky in that my professional work has taken me to all corners of the world where I have been able to see first hand some of the rarest and most spectacular wildlife on earth. But the fate of the creatures which share our planet lies entirely at the hand of mankind - it is within our power to protect them or watch them become extinct. Let us choose the first route.»
Having a child when you can't
Maybe you were dreaming of having a child. There are so many ways that dream can become annihilated (a harsh word, but appropriate here, I think). Medical reasons, maybe. Maybe you were considering adoption, too, only to learn that thousands and thousands share the same dream, so your chances are tiny.
I hesitate to say «having a child» here, because my suggestions include to respect the fact that you can never have a child, even when you're the biological parent.
There are so many ways, so many organizations that support children in your country and all over the globe that I'll just mention one, below. Whatever path you will follow, I suggest if you choose to support a humanitarian organization, verify that in fulfills the following criteria:
- They demonstrate a proven track history, both in terms of years and successful projects. There should be nothing to hide here.
- They grant everybody open access to their financial information, not shying away from putting their combined accounts information on the internet, for download.
- They let you sponsor a child you get to know, even if it's only a photograph and one-page status you receive, from time to time.
- They contribute to the well-being of the family and of the place the child lives in. Remember the african proverb: «It takes a whole village to raise a child.»
- If they work in a foreign place, they maintain good connections with local residents and send you first-hand, up-to-date information about the region, on a regular base.
- They make you let go. While this may be the hardest part for you, the goal is the well-being and growth of a child and of its environment, not to keep a human in perpetual dependency.
My wife and me chose to become member of our local branch of Plan International. We were sponsoring a funny little boy in Kenya; the project to improve life conditions in his village was successful and our sponsorship had to end. Since then, we support a little girl in Sudan.
Plan fulfills all of the criteria I've listed above in a way that is more than excellent. They even contact local residents who help out and translate letters into the local languages and dialects. I asked them for a nice photograph to help me support their cause in a blog posting, and within a few hours, their PR staff responded, the lovely picture attached that you see above. They really walk the extra mile.
You were made to be great - so what will you choose to do?