I decided to cheat a little for this column and scrounged up something I wrote a long time ago (but never published!).
This is from one Christmas Eve that I spent doing a volunteer activity with Pittsburgh's Jewish Federation. I was working as an intern in the Pittsburgh area at the time.
I wound up going to a veterans hospital, where we were supposed to talk to the patients.
Even though I realize Christmas is over (at least for retail purposes), I thought this reflection may still be appropriate, especially with all the troops coming back from Iraq.
So here goes, with some minor edits. I'm also not providing too many details, for patient confidentiality reasons:
Volunteering at the VA hospital was fulfilling, of course, but also pretty depressing because the hospital is more like a prison.
The volunteers (including me) were really surprised by the situation the people were in.
A lot of them were there for years, and they can almost never go outside or even from one part of the hospital to another.
Unlike many hospitals that tend to be pretty fancy and "homey," the VA Hospital was really sterile and bland. They barely even decorated for Christmas.
Most of the residents did not have family or anyone to visit them, at Christmas or in general, so they seemed really happy to see us.
Some people seemed pretty depressed and couldn't think of much to say, but you could tell they were really desperate to talk to someone because they kept staring at us until we left. It was very sad.
Also, the hospital had a chapel, but a lot of the residents could no longer use it because they weren't allowed to leave their floors.
When we left, I wished I could stay longer because I felt so terrible for these people. Some of the other volunteers noted that criminals in prison have it better.
The veterans weren't getting anything for Christmas – no family, no presents, no chapel – except our visit and maybe a Christmas movie in their daily rotation of endless TV-watching.
I guess I'm supposed to say this experience made me aware of the blessings in my life. But the truth is, it made me realize not only that my life is undeservedly amazing, but that there are a ton of people who need love and justice more than we know.
I can't imagine living in the VA Hospital for 20 years with no one to visit me and nothing to do; I think I would be even more depressed and hopeless than the people I met.
I've been told throughout my life that you can't save everyone, that helping strangers is somehow a waste of time because there's just too much suffering in the world.
And things like this remind me that's a lie. I wished I could do a lot more for the residents, but at least I did something.
That's the end of the reflection, and even though it's about a hospital in Pittsburgh, I think it can apply to institutions anywhere.
I wish everyone a happy new year, and I hope more people take the time to remember those who will be spending 2012 alone.