When we talk about being more creative, more fulfilled, and happier people, what is the ultimate goal?
There are different theories on that of course, but for me, the goal is affecting other people. With our words, photographs, paintings, or films, we bring people to a different place. We show them, even if for five pages or one brushstroke, what life is like through someone else's eyes, and we move them. It doesn't matter if it's toward empathy or indignation, the point is that they are moved in some way.
An even better way of doing this in the here and now, while you're still working toward moving people with your art, is to volunteer. I know it sounds cheesy, but to give your time or your money toward a cause makes you feel wealthy beyond your means and might even lead you to new discoveries about yourself, by moving you into someone else's world for a while. It can be a wonderful impetus for new art and creative endeavors as well.
Volunteering in person, giving your time physically, is the best and most complete way.
After my first year of university, confused about what I wanted in life and tired of school, I spent four months in South Africa working with a job skills organization, Learn to Earn. Located in one of the country's largest townships, Khayelitsha, 500,000 to a million people live in a "shanty-town" just a short drive away from Cape Town, the city that performed the world's first heart transplant. It was an eye opener in many ways, and I feel like I really grew up while I was there. No family, no other Americans, just me and a reliance on the generosity of a foreign people in a foreign land. It was hard; I was a racial minority for the first time in my life, and I had to learn to be empathetic without breaking each time I visited a home without access to clean water and food, or attended one more funeral for a student who had succumbed to AIDS complications.
The people I met and the experiences I had there emotionally and mentally really changed me. I came back, maybe not with a concrete plan, but I knew I wanted to go back to school, and that ultimately I wanted to help people through stories and writing. It's not a route for everyone, as it requires a certain flexibility and tenacity to "go with the flow." Sometimes you feel as though you're not doing any good at all, but if you can get past yourself and your comforts long enough to find a place to volunteer for a while, the rewards for both you and those you'll work with are incalculable.
Most of the time though, we simply can't volunteer our time, and in those cases, a little money goes a long way. I know you might be short on cash, but it doesn't take much to make a difference for a lot of organizations. There are plenty, pick your cause, just as long as it helps people in need.
The one I've been involved with for the better part of the year is Kiva. Kiva works on a micro-loan system for entrepreneurs in third world countries. You give amounts from $25 up to $1550 to an individual to help them start a business, or repair their equipment, whatever they need. You can choose from a staggering number of people in a multitude of countries. It's exciting to see the financial progress of all the loans, and the notes that loanees sometimes send. Once a loan is repaid, you can re-invest it in a new loan, donate it to Kiva to help them keep running, or pull the money back out if you need it. They also sell Gift certificates, which make wonderful Christmas presents.
Kiva is of course just one of many, many organizations that could use your help and love. If you're currently involved in volunteering, please leave the information in the comments so others can find it.