When most people find out that I volunteer as a mentor at Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, I often get the same response: raised eyebrows with a brief look of confusion followed by a nod of approval and the obligatory, "That's good for you! I never would have guessed." Sadly, it is my close friends who are the worst offenders. To them, I am perhaps the same reckless, self-absorbed kid who thought it would be a great idea to unsuccessfully surf an empty keg down the stairs of our old fraternity house.
When I first started to write this article, I wanted to take the position that personal growth and maturity could be achieved through volunteer work and various acts of selflessness -- that's a fallacy. I'm learning that "maturity" is not attained through singular acts but rather the result of simply getting older and gaining a better perspective on the world in which we live. Amazingly, it was my nine-year-old "Little Brother" that helped me to realize this.
The most striking aspect of these past four years at Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City is that it almost never happened. Previously, I had thought of volunteer work as usually an unfulfilled promise -- something that we would all like to do but don't -- because in reality it is far too difficult to fit into our busy lives.
For me, my unfulfilled promise became reality only after I had been pushed by fate. About four years ago, on a flight from Ohio to New York, I found myself rather distraught as a result of becoming newly single. To kill time and divert my thoughts, I began leafing through the pages of an in-flight magazine. Of all the articles that I gazed over during that flight, I became fixated on the one that sang the virtues of philanthropy and the joys of "giving back." I reasoned that if the person whom I loved didn't want my heart, it was best to give it to someone who needed it. Four months later, I met Jose, who was one of Program's youngest "Littles." An inkling of a thought found legs, came to fruition and here I was at 25 years of age, a self-described "party boy," sitting across the table from a six-year-old in a Murray Hill pizzeria with absolutely nothing to say.
Time has passed quickly. Jose, or Jassany (his middle name) as he likes to be called, has gone from a shy six-year-old to an extroverted nine-year-old. He is now an open book to anyone willing to listen. His growth from week to week is truly amazing to watch. I know everyone's personality forms and develops. While I don't exactly know how he will act as an adult, I can say with certainty that he will become a successful, outgoing, morally grounded individual, which is a testament to the love and support that he receives from his family on a daily basis.
I think that actual evidence of his predestined success can be found in an April, 28 2011 edition of the The Wall Street Journal. Jassany and I were asked to present an award to Edward Breen, CEO of Tyco Industries, in recognition of his philanthropic work, at the Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC Annual fundraiser called "Sidewalks of New York" at the Waldorf Astoria. We practiced for weeks with a speech writer as we would be speaking directly to some of the most powerful and influential people in Manhattan, nearly a thousand attendees in all. In the brief minutes preceding our big speech, when I was supposed to be cool, calm, and collected, it was Jassany who told me to "not worry, we'll be okay." While I sweated and mumbled through my portion of the speech, it was Jassany who stole the show and, in my opinion, became one of the evening's biggest highlights. The Wall Street Journal dubbed him the "underage dynamo."
At its core, philanthropy is a personal choice for the individual who chooses to do it. It has put my life into perspective and has given me a context in which I want to choose to continue as my life evolves. In many ways, it has given my life some substance, and I guess... meaning. As my dad always told me, "things always have a way of working themselves out." Four years ago, I was flying back to New York on a rickety old plane, completely devastated by the thought that the love of my life was now gone and that my life as I had planned it was irrevocably and forever changed. And perhaps it was, but not in the way I thought.
I didn't know then, but my search for meaning and my life rewards were still far ahead of me. I wasn't necessarily flying away from her, as much as I was flying towards Jassany.
To borrow a line from Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, "A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears toward a human being who affectionately waits for him or to an unfinished work will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the 'why' for his existence and will be able to bear almost any "'how.'"
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