We’ve all seen the headlines. Felt them to our very bones and generally before our morning coffee. People are tired and worn out. We’ve learned a new term: languishing.
As we approach yet another anniversary of the pandemic that caught us all flat-footed and unaware, it seems that to be exhausted and overwhelmed is just the normal human experience. Perhaps it’s hardwired. Or is there more?
In her new book, Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown describes a moment in her job working in a restaurant. If a staff member felt hugely overwhelmed, they could declare themselves “blown” and walk out for a 15-minute break. Coworkers would swoop in, cover everything that needed to be done so that the individual could take a moment and come back refreshed and ready to finish their shift.
I think we’re all a little bit blown. What, then, are we to do?
Researcher Sara Konrath suggests that the magic not lies just in the acknowledgement that we’re tired, but also in the actions of the coworkers. Their empathetic actions served both Brown and themselves. “Two years into a pandemic, it’s OK to not be OK,” Konrath said. “Empathy isn’t always for others; it also includes yourself. Setting up your environment so you’re surrounded by caring people helps you to be empathetic, too. Self-compassion is important.” (Indiana University, 2022)
Elizabeth Pennisi points to the evolutionary significance of these kinds of cooperation: “Animals help each other out in many ways. In social species from honeybees to naked mole rates, kinship fosters cooperation: Females forgo reproduction and instead help the dominate female with her young. And common agendas help unrelated individuals work together. Male chimpanzees, for example, gang up against predators, protecting each other at a potential cost to themselves.”
In modern-day suburbia, this is alive and well. Our family has friends next door that help with big projects, like taking down trees or putting in the garden. We do the same, and usually end with a big meal to celebrate together. Small tasks, like picking up something from the store or borrowing a cup of flour, are also shared when needed. Every time it happens, I’m blown away by the amount of connection both giver and receiver get by these moments. It’s helped me with my own feelings of overwhelm. It is a small moment with huge consequences for what it means to be in community.
It’s a circular relationship, with giving and receiving providing life-giving moments that make up the human experience. When we give, we also receive and vice versa.
What, then, does this mean for philanthropy?
For the philanthropist, it means that giving can be both meaningful and connecting. It provides both ties with community and a boost to one’s own esteem. For the recipient, it can mean a moment of connection as well. It means that we are not alone and, in fact, are part of a larger community that provides caring even (or especially) when we need it most.
Konrath describes a moment during a recent winter snowstorm when a neighbor dropped off some baked goods on her porch with a small note to enjoy the snow day. For her family, it was a moment of both enjoying the treats and also knowing that they were part of a fellowship of neighbors. (Indiana University, 2022)
Payton and Moody call these acts, and all acts of philanthropy, “voluntary action for the public good.” (You’ll note it doesn’t specify “monetary donations for the public good.”)
If you are feeling disconnected and unable to engage in larger philanthropic activities, perhaps this is the place to start. Who do you know that is blown? Offer an unexpected moment of respite. Or, if you are in the weeds yourself, personally or professionally, claim it and say it out loud. You might be surprised who shows up. After all, we are hardwired to help.
Aja May Pirtle has two decades of experience in marketing and fundraising in nonprofits, government, and education. She currently serves as managing director of marketing and communications for the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.