I was standing in a long line at the movie theater the other day, clearly looking restless and unhappy as my film was about to start in a minute. The woman in front of me turned around and offered me her spot in the line. She said that she was early for her show. It may have been a random act of kindness, but I’ve been noticing them more often these days.
We’ve all heard that the economy is in shambles, gas prices are high, construction companies are on their knees in most parts of the country, kids are graduating from college and moving back home with poor employment prospects—the litany of financial woes are endless. But the other side of this story doesn’t seem to get told: There is another economy emerging, an interpersonal economy of thoughtful gestures and care.
I came across this line from Professor Yolanda Pierce of the Princeton Theological Seminary in a recent blog: “I think that if there is anything good that can come out of a recession, it is to refocus our attention on those things that are truly important and valuable.” Her words resonated with my own thinking. These difficult days have resulted in more community involvement. I am certain of it. Strangers extending hands of friendship. Libraries full, with books being read and exchanged. I’ve noticed more couples and families in my city’s downtown, walking and window shopping, enjoying our shared public space. More are having picnics in the park, and we seem to have realized that the stalls at the local farmer’s market are as good for flavorful food as a fancy restaurant.
My athletic neighbor whose job search took longer than he’d hoped honed his cooking skills and traded recipes and samples across the fence when he was a stay-at-home dad. I enjoyed his amazing barbeques while his kids expanded their palates on my Indian food experiments. It was heart-warming to see him strap both the girls to the family’s three-wheel stroller and cheerfully jog his way to meet daily fitness goals.
Despite the economy, community donors and many local companies are continuing to give, keeping critical social programs running although budgets are tight. Local foundations are stressing collaboration and innovative grant-making, like Step-Up Silicon Valley, a coalition of non-profits working together to address poverty in the Bay Area. The San Jose Mercury News reported that, for the past few years, Silicon Valley Realtors have provided seniors and home bound residents free help with their household tasks. This is especially helpful for individuals with disabilities whose families live far away. The group cleverly call themselves RSVP (Realtor Service Volunteer Program). Isn’t it wonderful that those most in need can respond if they please to an invitation for assistance? Businesses are asking, “Can we do better?” My local Starbucks is offering free coffee to customers who fill out pledge cards to give five hours of time to volunteering. Neighbors are planting more in their gardens and sharing more of their produce. I woke up this morning to a basket of mandarin oranges at my front door.
Perhaps it takes financial uncertainties to refocus our energies and attention on building lasting relationships with families and friends. So now that we have focused anew, we must continue to harness these energies even in “good” economic times. Let’s become more resourceful in our spending and use creativity and generosity in our engagement with others. And let’s direct the uncertainty of available (and viable) career paths to open up new possibilities for service. Imagine: We no longer restrict carpools to school drops or soccer practice. Our summer street “progressive” dinners became spontaneous monthly meals with simple courses in each home, in casual dress, with children and pets—no need to limit ourselves to sit-down dinners with table cloths and cloth napkins, the formality of which often limit meaningful conversation and catching up. Without a second thought, we share our garden produce or dinner with the most recent widow or widower in the neighborhood. We revive and embrace those simpler days of children bringing friends around for Scrabble games or charades, and some even letting mum dust off those old embarrassing home videos for entertainment.
Post after post of pictures on Facebook after the spate of recent galas—American India Foundation (AIF), Indians for Collective Action (ICA) and more recently South Asian Heart Center (SAHC)—show us that we can come together as a community if there is enough of a rallying call for support. So here’s my two cents worth. How can we do better even when times are better? Let’s use our forced simpler life now to live simply always. Uncertainties are allowing many of us to take chances and risk new jobs, to dream different dreams, perhaps, and set new priorities. We’ve all read the human interest stories about former engineers teaching third-grade math classes, or honor students turning down interviews for five-figure salaries and electing to Teach for America instead. Earlier this year, Nipun Mehta of Charity Focus, one of the recipients of ICA’s service award, moved his extraordinary volunteer group to Service Space to reflect the group’s growth from charity to service. Charity Focus has garnered the attention of Diane Sawyer and the Huffington Post and, recently, Nipun spoke at the United Nations. As he smilingly said, the group’s goal is to “create [its own] karma.”
Business gurus say that entrepreneurs who survive during a downturn will end up “lean and super efficient with less competition.” I think that’s a mantra that all of us can embrace in our homes as well, but beyond becoming “lean and super efficient” we can extend the reach of our care, consideration, and commitment to many more around us, and carry our newfound creativity into all future ventures. Then, for sure, this gray economic cloud will have a silver community lining.
Shobha Tharoor Srinivasan is the author of two children’s books, A Pie Surprise and Other Stories (Mango Books, 2011) and Around the World You Wander (Solstice Publishing, 2010), as well as a grant writing consultant and voice-over artist. Shobha has recently completed a translation of a Hindi storybook and is working on a book of children’s poetry. Visit www.shobhatharoorsrinivasan.com