When I started writing this letter you were lucky enough to be on holiday with me, your mum, your grandparents and your bigger cousins. As I was finishing it you and three of those cousins were a couple of lego blocks away from tearing apart the lounge in our rented holiday house on the beach. Your mum was making a mean desert, and your grandad was crashed out after a day of chasing you four around Australia zoo. You haven’t known anything different in your 2 years here, but you’ve led a pretty sweet life so far.
As many as 28 per cent of other kids around Aotearoa don’t have it that sweet – about 305,000 live in poverty today.
A couple of months back I went out visiting the schools I’m working with this year in the Shoebox Christmas project and heard a couple of stories that reminded me just how sweet the life we have is, how lucky you are, and how much work we can still do.
I talked with a little girl who was really excited about getting the Christmas presents you’re going to help us stack up for her and her class-mates. She was excited because ordinarily in December when all the other kids are counting down the days till they sit in the lounge with their family and tear the paper off their presents, she’s not.
She’s not excited and she’s not counting down the days. She’s probably confused. Because every year on Christmas Day she doesn’t get a thing unless “someone from the church” gets her a present.
I met another little girl scribbling down a quiz for her class-mates on the olympics. For Christmas she wants stationery. Not because she loves school work, or because she loves drawing, but because she knows her family is under pressure and is going to really struggle to pay for her books and pencils next year when she goes to intermediate. She’s aware enough of her surroundings to know her family are struggling, and concerned enough to sacrifice the things she really wants for Christmas – so that the financial pressure is less than it would be if she didn’t. This is a girl at primary school.
When it’s not your reality it’s easy and convenient to think the way you live is the norm. But those little girls that go to school 5 minutes down the road from our comfortable lounge, have lives so different to yours that they might as well live on different continents. Aotearoa is an awesome little place to live, but if you think everyone is as lucky as we are, me and your mum haven’t been doing our job properly.
Those little girls weren’t your sisters or cousins, but they could have been. They could have been you. They’re only not you because of decisions that were made before you even arrived on earth, some of them before I arrived too.
Meeting them made me think of two things I want you to know.
We don’t choose our weather, and
If you’re in a position to help; do it.
We don’t choose our weather
The distance from your home to the home of that little girl isn’t far, me and her dad probably use the same ATM to withdraw cash. But when he withdraws the money for this week’s food budget, that’s 66% of the family’s pay gone.
The freezer of the little boy at the same school with a $12 frozen chicken tucked away for a birthday dinner isn’t far from ours. But ours has Kapiti Ice Cream in it.
You’ll notice this once you’re a bit older, but you have some pretty cool things that others don’t. Some of the kids you share the playground down the road with don’t have what you consider basic needs and what most families take for granted. I don’t know what the stat is on how many parents think poverty only exists overseas, but it’s probably worse than the 1 in 4 children that live in poverty. The figure on how many think that it’s all the parents’ fault is probably similar.
And yes of course there are kids that have more than you do too, but the gap in basic needs like coming to school with lunch versus coming to school without, makes a much bigger difference than the gap in years between our BMW and theirs.
(…we don’t have actually have a BMW, but it’s the first example that popped into my head, hopefully you get the point).
The things that meant you have those luxuries while that little boy you might never meet doesn’t, aren’t something either of you had a say in. A lot of them we didn’t have a say in either. They’re like weather conditions. Me and your mum are not better or worse parents because you can come home and watch Netflix Kids, or because we both love reading to you. That boy’s parents didn’t decide how much money they have to budget with – they’re not bad parents because of that. And you and him are not better or worse people because of those things that are different at home. I hope when you’re reading this that last sentence seems like a waste of space because it’s so obvious. Unfortunately for the world it’s not obvious to some people. You will meet some of those people as you get older, feel free to tell them they’re wrong.
There’s a million variables that have created those realities and different weather conditions for you both. I hope you have enough emotional intelligence to acknowledge those differences are there when you need to, and to then disregard them in all other instances – you can’t judge someone because of the weather they grew up in.
Actually, change that sentence. You can’t judge anyone full stop. You will never know everything that you need to know to make any judgement worth the time it takes for your brain’s synapses to spark. There’s a million things that influence why we are what we are, and how we communicate that what to the world. All you will ever see is a tiny piece of the how.
And eeeeven if you saw (say the extra e’s so you read it as emphatically as I wrote it) and understood more, you would most likely still apply your own values to the way that person is and try to interpret them through those values. That’s still judging. You’re perceiving somebody else based on how you think they should be. But you’ve never been them, and never will.
Understanding people is a good skill to practice and get better at. But like most things, the last level of mastery is knowing there will always be much more that you’re ignorant of than what you know. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you understand enough about anyone to even start judging them. You don’t.
“We can never judge the lives of others, because each person knows only their own pain and renunciation. It’s one thing to feel that you are on the right path, but it’s another to think that yours is the only path.”
– Paul Colhelo
What you have might be different, that doesn’t mean who you are or who you can be is. You and all the other kids you will bump into through life, have the same potential to be whatever you want to be, and you all deserve the same chance to realise that potential. And remember potential isn’t uniform – it’s your ability to reach whatever self actualisation means you are the best you that you can be. It doesn’t necessarily mean being a world class athlete, a famous actor, singer, rapper or politician. It’s whatever is right for you based on your own needs and drive. Not mine, your mum’s, and not the expectations of the world. (I hope you don’t use that sentence against me in 14 years time). The conditions some kids live with make it harder to realise that potential not because they don’t know what they want to be, or wish they were, but because it can be much harder to believe those wises are a possibility when you don’t see anyone around you making them real. Role models are really important.
When it comes to your own challenges, right now me, you and your mum are pretty lucky. We’re lucky to have the nice warm house that we do. We’re lucky that some of the million things or conditions that created our reality mean you don’t have to face into some of the challenges those kids in the first part of this letter do. A lot of those conditions just happened to fall into place without us needing to do anything;
The street we grew up in.
The tenacity of your Great Great Grandmother.
The books in your Grandparents’ bookshelves.
The list could go for miles and while none of those conditions have the power to define us on their own, sometimes the combination of conditions means the challenges a kid faces to realising their potential are really significant. Sometimes they’ll be able to overcome them on their own, sometimes they them won’t. Know and appreciate that, and appreciate that most of the time they don’t choose their conditions or challenges, just like you won’t choose yours.
If you’re in a position to help, do it.
I was cautious about writing this because I don’t really want to impose my values on you and tell you this is something you should do. So I’ll talk about it from the angle of what you get out of it, and try to avoid turning it into a lofty, human obligation guilt trip.
First and foremost I hope you grow into a healthy, happy, well adjusted soul. That’s mine and your mum’s first wish, and we’ll do whatever we can to make that true.
Unrelated to your happiness, there will always be people that you are in a position to help, and people that need a hand to overcome their challenges. Hopefully that first section about what reality can look like for others, and how little say they usually have in it, paints that picture well enough for you.
Surprisingly related to your happiness, my second hope is that you find yourself in a position to help those that need it, and that you take advantage of that position. Not only because of the difference and impact you can have on the world as a whole and the smaller worlds of those that need it. But also because it will help with our first wish of making you happy.
The act of giving makes you feel good. It creates the same response in your brain as eating chocolate. If you’ve donated, shared, or given something to someone already and felt the ‘warm fuzzies’ or that nice feeling you get as a result, then you know what I’m talking about – and obviously the 46 times this week me and your mum talked to two-year-old-you about sharing, worked. There’s science behind that, and it wasn’t me eating a block of chocolate then donating your savings to see how I felt afterwards; research paper summary.
It’s also good for your actual health. Not the same response as eating chocolate. Another, equally wordy research paper summary.
So giving to others makes you happier, and healthier. That makes sense when you think about evolution and the importance community/society plays when it comes to survival. Flashback to your cave-woman days. Your cave-buddy notices the lions coming along the plains and knows that if you stick around he’s going to get an extra spare rib tomorrow because you’re a generous chick. Good news, he gives you a heads up that probably just saved your life.
I spend a lot of my before and after work time helping others to give, I started the Shoebox Christmas project to make sure the first little girl in that story does get a Christmas present. The Stationery Starter Packs project is/was/will be about helping out new-to-college kids in tough situations with starter stationery packs for school. I started both to play my part in the solution to those two problems, but I keep doing them for the selfish, understandably un-altruistic reason that it just feels good. I haven’t checked my blood pressure before and after so I can’t personally vouch for the health benefits – but I can definitely say they make me happy. That’s got nothing to do with the kids, and that’s cool – the result is a win:win, I’m a happier and more fulfilled person, dad, husband and leader, and this year 3600 kids will have something extra to smile about on Christmas Day.
Find what makes you happy and getting up every morning will be easy. Everything is easier when you’re happy. If you can do it in a way that gives to others too, it will even feel better, trust me. Give it a go, lend a hand.
PS ask me how the Stationery Starter Packs project went once you’ve read this. Right now there’s 4 days left and we’ve raised $4300 – I’m hoping we can get to $4500 before it closes, that’s a decent start towards helping these kids get the start at school that we all deserve.
Start Something That Matters – very cool book from the guy who started the ‘buy one give one’ model.
Getting Beyond Better: How Social Entrepreneurship Works – a collection of examples of people changing the system for the better