"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?" - Clarence the Angel - It's a Wonderful Life
I'll be the first to admit that the last few weeks have been downright awful, depressing, physically, emotionally and spiritually draining. The kind that make you question why you're here - a genuine George Bailey moment. For those that don't know the movie, It's a Wonderful Life, George Bailey is the kind of guy that sacrifices himself to do the right thing, to follow in his father's footsteps at the expense of his own dreams of being an engineer overseas. When a financial crisis befalls the business he has given up so much for - he is ready to give up in a big way - as in take his own life. Now, I wasn't quite there but I was really depressed to the point of wondering what God's plan for me truly is.
I have worked in non-profits for most of my adult life. I've helped abused and abandoned children, women in developing countries get education and healthcare, worked on international AIDS prevention, brought open heart services to the local hospital, helped to market edgy theatre to the Atlanta and helped adults with developmental disabilities. It's been a wide range of experiences and to all walks of life. Accomplishing those things should make me feel fucking awesome - like a real superhero. But lately, I've been so burned out that the idea of helping people seems to be a big drain. I give way more than I get back - and that realization has shaken me to my core. I try to look at the spiritual gifts: the smiles on the faces of the children who used to get the presents from the toy drives I spearheaded; the reports of women in Kenya being able to get a cart to start their own businesses thanks to a micro loan I helped facilitate; the associates at the local hospital who were able to show their talents at the staff talent show in a venue that made them feel like a star. Those moments are valuable and impossible for a paycheck to capture. But then, when you work 70 to 90 hour weeks on a project, pull miracle upon miracle out of your pocket and the committee people that you're working with don't have the decency to say thank you because it didn't turn out as perfectly as they would have liked - it hurts. Maybe if you weren't so burned out you could roll with the punches, but sometimes you just feel like hanging up your cape or like George Bailey on Christmas Eve - wondering if the world be better off if you had never been born at all because all the good you do doesn't seem to amount to much.
There is actually a term for it - it's called Superhero Burnout which is tailor made for people who work at non-profits. It can be hard to have to deal with having little time or resources, lack of money, and constant stressors over the economy. We have to do so much with so little and it can take it's toll. The book, The Superhero Handbook by Glenn Campbell (the author not the singer) explains why being Superman can be so exhausting. "Every superpower, no matter how impressive, has its load limit, and if you exceed it, one way or another your powers will be rendered useless. It is like piling too many apples on a cart. Each apple seems small and easy to carry, but if you keep adding more, eventually the cart has to collapse. You don’t know exactly when it will happen, but as long as you keep adding apples you know it will happen, and when it does, your cart won’t carry anything anymore. That is the fundamental problem of super-heroism. You want to do as much good for the world as you can. You want to improve your society, but you must not compromise your precious core powers that allow you to do anything at all."
Most superheroes have their own weaknesses or Kryptonite. My weakness it's setting boundaries and self-doubt. When my efforts are barely acknowledged, I feel slighted and hurt. I doubt my skills and try to do more to make up for it. It's the sort of thing that the Lois Lanes of the world prey upon. Why should Lois be more careful when she's involved with a dangerous story? She knows that Superman will always bail her out. If there was no superhero, she'd be more be more responsible. Why should the folks in Bedford Falls worry when the big bank closes? They have George Bailey giving away his honeymoon money to save their asses until the bank opens in a week. So falls the great problem with being a superhero - there is just so much of you to go around and the people who put themselves in peril know that. They know that you won't let them fail, they know that you'll do anything you can to help them. They'll take the help and will at first be grateful but after awhile they will take it for granted. But as a superhero, your drug is feeling like you can change the world and the world will be grateful. You work to relive that first buzz of appreciation but as they ask for more and more, you get more and more drained - then you begin to resent the people of Metropolis and Gotham. "For God's sake, get a grip and do something to help yourself for a change - stop coming to me for all the answers," you want to shout.
So as I look back at the last few weeks - the crazy hours and time not spent with my family it strikes me that my pursuit of being good and kind might be causing my apple cart to collapse. Why do I feel so unworthy if I want to do something for myself? If things happen that are out of my control yet still effect my family - how am I to blame? How come I can't save everyone who needs my help? The reality is no superhero, no matter how noble - can. It's impossible. You have to focus on the people that you have helped - in whose life you had made a difference and frankly screw anyone who doesn't have the capacity or decency to show some type of appreciation for the sacrifices you've endured to help them because they'll never get it - it's just not in their wheelhouse. They will still ask you for more and more until you can't give anymore - you're physically, intellectually and spiritually bankrupt. This is why you need to set limits. Sadly, once those people see that - rather than offering support, they'll move onto the next superhero in the Hall of Justice that they can latch onto.
I was thinking the other day about the most important things I've ever done as a professional fundraiser. I did toy drives for abused kids in Miami for a charity that I used to work for. I would drive myself to exhaustion to make sure each of the 600 kids in the different programs got at least a few presents for Christmas. I would come back to work the week after the holidays and try to clear my desk from the December push still fighting post-holiday burnout. I knew our kids got what they needed even if I never saw a thank-you note from them because it wasn't necessary - they just needed to know that there were people who wanted to help them. The presents that came into "Santa Central" went out with little fanfare because that was not the point.
One year, I had a social worker named Andrea call me and relay what a parent had told her. One of the programs at this organization was to help families affected by HIV. This mother and son both had been infected with AIDS. The mother was in bad shape, with maybe a few months left to live. Her son Octavius was five or six and had HIV but was not full blown AIDS just yet. The social workers knew this would probably be their last Christmas together. I wasn't aware how bad it was, I just treated Octavius' wish list like any other in "Santa Central" - it needed to be filled the best way I could. Andrea told me that she had just gotten off the phone with Octavius' mother and while she was weak and her voice was raspy - she was able to say "Thank you, Thank you, Thank you," over and over again. You could hear our tears on each end of the phone. That one simple act changed their lives and gave a dying woman a happy and ordinary moment to share with her son, free of hospitals and medicine. She died that spring and Octavius a year later. But for that one glorious moment, they were just a mother and son ripping into Christmas presents and smiling. To this day, I think it's one of the most important "Superhero" things I've ever done.
Another superhero moment was when I helped organize a talent show at the hospital where I used to work. We invited associates and volunteers to audition for a chance to perform to win prizes. We had many people audition including a man named John Sullivan who sang Unchained Melody by the Righteous Brothers which was the song that Max and I danced to at our wedding. He was a guy in his 80's who had that old world charm and could sell the song even if his vocals were not the strongest. We invited him to compete even though my boss thought it was a bad idea because his voice was not that great. I explained that we needed the hospital volunteers to support the event and having John in the contest would bring them in. My intuitional hit was that he would go all out during the actual show. The night of the show finally came and while the younger contestants were acting like Diva's, John showed up in a tuxedo, ready to do his sound check and encouraging everyone who stepped on stage. When his big moment came, he was as poised as Frank Sinatra and totally wowed the crowd which gave him a standing ovation. He ended up winning the contest and you could see the pride on his face. I made a video for him and also posted his performance on YouTube where his family who were not able to attend could share in his triumph. Click here to see the video.
I found out later that Mr. Sullivan had gotten sick and passed away about six months after the video was taken. But before he left this earth, he got to sing and entertain people. The video on-line has been viewed over 1,300 times and his family left some very sweet comments after he died. They will always be able to share in this moment which shows him doing what he loved best. I helped give them that. I'm not sure how many superheroes get to see that but thankfully I can. I need to not lose sight of that.
"Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"
So for all those superheroes: doctors, nurses, first responders, teachers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers, case workers, social workers and legions of people who work in non-profits who don't make the money or have the recognition and fame like Kim Kardashian or Donald Trump. I know it's easy wonder why we bother sometimes. It's easy to give into the Mr. Potters, Lex Luthors, the Jokers and the Green Goblins because no matter how many times you save the world, the world will still always need saving. Those supervillains will want to pick off the good and make us look bad. But it's the people that you touch that you can't always see that need our help the most - theirs are the lives we can transform. It's not that they are ungrateful, it's just that there might be so many degrees of separation that they might not know who to thank. For what it's worth, the world needs us - whether it's in Metropolis, Gotham City, Bedford Falls, or Metro Atlanta. Sure, it's exhausting and people can be incredibly insensitive. Sometimes it just really, really sucks. But if life has taught me anything, it's that people like Octavius and John Sullivan can randomly walk into your life and make you stronger. So thank you Clarence for reminding all us ordinary superheroes that when we jump in to save someone like you - we are actually saving ourselves.