I have walked past the food pantry at Hope House more than 20 times since 2008. And each time, I marveled at the scene — a collection of tiny black plastic storage bins lined up outside the doors. And each time, I imagined that someone was going through them to take money to feed themselves or their family.
I would ask myself, “When am I going to be one of them?” I constantly wondered, as my priorities shifted from food to money, whether any of this was sustainable. If I were to survive, would I be supported by the kind of cash flow that keeps me from having to resort to the food pantry? If I am able to raise my daughter and provide for her in the world that is around me, does that mean she can stay at Hope House?
I wondered if those were true questions. If I couldn’t do what I wanted, how could I ever come forward and share it? I wondered what I could hope for. I looked for an answer. There were few real answers. And there was a lot of denial and self-serving thinking. Until one day I realized that I had nothing to give. I had nothing to give.
One day I had to “give up.” I had to ask myself, “What do I need to give back that doesn’t affect me?” What I needed to give back was a truthful look at who I am, what my story was, and how I fit into this story. I realized that that’s how I can truly give back.
I gave up my understanding of what I could give away, my ability to alleviate pain, the love and goodwill I held for others. I gave up my political judgments about the world and about life, because my sense of identity was so far off — my relationship to truth, my experience, my experience of life. I gave up questioning, “How can I be a part of this?”
I realized I am nothing without my truth. And that, too, can be a gift for others. I’m a woman in a profession that is in full crisis: nursing. In my work as a nurse, I care for the people I serve. I see in the face of this crisis the face of my community, my neighborhood, my patients. For a long time, I would not let myself see. But when I allowed myself to see, I did see that I wasn’t alone.
When you see, you may be called to service. When you give up your interpretation of the world — your political judgments, your prejudice, your guilt — your inner voice bursts to life. It whispers at you, telling you, “You can give.”
When you give up all of this, you give yourself the ability to give back — to start a conversation. To offer a shoulder to cry on, a friend to talk to, a shoulder to lean on, and most importantly, to lean into your authentic self. With this less self-centered approach, people may become more open to asking for help and more generous to help. You’re able to give back because you trust the truth you see and you’re able to start a conversation. And when people are open to connecting with you, then they might reach out to you to be your friend.
I’m not being selfish. I want to help. But I want to help with my experience, with my gift of connection, with my willingness to embrace people with humility. I want to share who I am, because I have something to offer. When I give up the misperception that I can’t give back, the belief that I am somehow not valid, my hands are freed to give more. I give back because I am in the trenches of caring for others, because I have a resource — my being — to give. This is not selfishness, it is my survival.
I have so much more to offer. This is my first experiment in giving back. And the response I’ve received has been so heartwarming. I’ve been challenged, to be the best me, to move forward even when I don’t feel I can move forward. And to be able to talk to people about the understanding of the world that I’ve started with. It has been incredible. I have found the path of grace. It is so much harder than it seems. Thank you for letting me walk it with you.
Michelle Williams and Donnie Wahlberg appeared together on the October 15 episode of