Archive for the 'giving' Category

Renewing our Cities by Renewing Each Other

I recently did a series of videos about how people in Hampton Roads, Virginia renew their cities.  The videos were initially done to help promote the Renewal Art Show that is produced each April by Symphonic, the church I attended while in Virginia.

I wrote a few articles about the Renewal videos for, a fine local source of news and culture, but the piece I wrote for the last video was by far the most personal, and so it was the hardest to write.

Manuel Osorio de Zuniga – Goya, 1784-1792 


I thought about deleting it several times during and after the writing process.  Repeatedly I’d ask myself, is it really all that wise to be deliberately vulnerable in public, and do I really believe all those fancy-sounding things I am writing?

I’d say yes to both, but only when I’m at my best, when I’m under the influence of good friends.  My default sensibility is to be wary of others and go it alone, so it’s a battle to get past that.

Overall the edits that AltDaily did to my last piece made it more coherent, for which I am grateful, but the nuances of a small, but important, point I made got lost in translation.

Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters – Goya, 1797


I initially wrote that two discouraging incidents I faced were probably the results of past abuse or supernatural manifestations of evil.  The edit did away with the possibility of abuse, making it sound like I am prone to see demons at work in many of the challenging circumstances I face.

Actually, I am more inclined to see problems as the consequences of human selfishness, poor design, or prior trauma, but I do believe that spirits, good and bad, exert influence in our world.  After considering the AltDaily article as it currently stands, I realized that it is still true to how I see things, but the demons I’m thinking of are not necessarily scary spirits.

There are scary ones too, I’m sure, but most of the ones we encounter on a daily basis are more like lingering relics from the past that prevent us from becoming whole, sort of like how the brilliant cartoonist Lynda Barry portrays them in her book One Hundred Demons.  (As it happens, that book is available for free on Google Books. Pretty neat, but the book has such a tactile aspect that you might want to consider the printed version.)

Little Hobgoblins – Goya, 1799


Put differently, demons are often like irrational bits of code that cause us to self-destruct, to doubt ourselves and others, to go against the very things that we claim to value, to override our inherent programming if you will.  (Yeah, that’s the Matrix creeping into the discussion.)

It’s only fair to mention that I too struggle with my own personal demons.  When I’m on my own, they win more than I care to admit, and I don’t like the person I can become when that happens.  I am more likely to prevail when providence brings me people who help me stay the course.

La famille de l’infant Don Louis – Goya, 1783


With that said, here is the AltDaily article:

Below I’ve included all the Renewal videos.  They are longer than many YouTube videos,  but most people who’ve seen the videos have found them worthy of the time commitment.  I hope they will inspire you, just as they inspired me when I made them.

Part I:


Part II:


Part III:


Part IV:


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Brother, Could You Spare Some Charity for a Friendly Celebrity?

As the Beatles remind us, we all want to change the world.  That includes celebrities and the people who run big companies.  Be that as it may, I’m still skeptical when I hear about celebrities promoting causes.  What big movie or television show do they have coming up, what product are they trying to sell, I find myself wondering.  Other people do the same when they hear about a company doing charity work.

Self-portrait – Joseph Ducreux, 1793


Why are we so cynical? Part of it is that celebrities and big businesses sometimes do use their charitable efforts for selfish reasons.  What person hasn’t been tempted to do good for the wrong motives?  Besides, the marketplace is so crowded these days that many  are willing to do anything to get attention.

Still, I suspect that much of our cynicism comes from  an innate appreciation of genuine charity. When true, charity is such a precious thing that it can change lives, so we are careful to distinguish between the real thing and its false imitations.

In Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables it takes just one act of compassion from a victimized priest to transform the criminal Jean Valjean into an influential man of character.    That’s  powerful stuff.  Unfortunately, the famous and the powerful are well aware of the esteem that we hold for such acts, and the less scrupulous ones will use that esteem to their advantage.

When that happens, the world wrinkles and dons more cynicism.  Real charity won’t be greeted so warmly next time she comes to visit.

It’s worth mentioning that the only angry outburst from Christ recorded in the gospels occurs when he confronts the merchants in the tabernacle.  Like their modern-day contemporaries, the merchants tried to turn charity and virtue into a profitable endeavor.

At the Cirque Fernando – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1888


How are we to distinguish between the sincere and the self-serving humanitarian efforts of the rich and the famous?  Consistency is a good place to start. Does the celebrity’s cause correlate with the way he or she lives? Let’s look at some examples:

Lance Armstrong has dedicated his life to achieving peak physical performance.  He battled cancer and then went on to win the Tour de France, so it is entirely believable that he is committed to the principles of his Live Strong organization.

Steven Spielberg’s efforts with the Shoah Foundation come across as sincere thanks in part to the kinds of World War II stories he has told.  Similarly, Will Smith’s involvement in movies like Pursuit of Happyness and I am Legend gives credibility to his  Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation, an organization dedicated to improving the lives of inner-city kids.

On the other hand, U2’s Bono gets a lot of press for begging governments to finance welfare programs and forgive third-world debt.  Yes, it’s a beautiful day, and you’ve got beautiful rhetoric Bono, but then again, you did move your band’s money out of Ireland to avoid paying more taxes. How does that fit into the campaign?  You know all those fancy programs you advocate do cost money.  Did you just assume it would be someone else footing the bill?

And then there’s Al Gore.  He revived his career by traveling the globe to lecture about the environment, becoming a poster boy for the green movement.  Yet while he was evangelizing for the earth, he was consuming more electricity per month than the average American household would use in a year, holding large amounts of stock in a petroleum company known for drilling in ecologically sensitive areas, and receiving royalties from a zinc mine that no self-respecting environmentalist would consider earth-friendly. He became quite the celebrity by telling other people to do what he couldn’t stomach.

Ophelia – John Everett Millais, 1852


Let’s go back to a more positive note by returning our attention to Will Smith.  His character in I am Legend talks about how important it is to fight the darkness with the light, an attitude that resurfaces again and again in his films.  Suppose though, that Will Smith made a career out of calling other black people the n word while acting like thug.  Wouldn’t it be a little harder to buy into the candor of his charitable work?

To give an even more extreme example, what if a porn star started a foundation to preserve the sanctity of marriage?  By inflaming lust, isn’t she doing the  very thing that so often causes a marriage to deteriorate?  Still, it is possible that our porn star is quite earnest in creating her marriage institute.  Maybe she’s just as conflicted and complex as the rest of us.

Is there no hope for the poor gal? Well yes, there is hope even for her, bless her tender, porn-star heart.  She would just have to work that much harder to convince us of her sincerity.

Masks and Death – James Ensor


Why would a porn star want to start a marriage institute, you ask?  Perhaps for the same reason that many of us, myself included, sometimes do volunteer work: to make up for personal failings.  How much easier it is to win the admiration of a distant public than to earn esteem up close, in private relationships.   I’m betting big bucks (figurative ones) that so many of the world’s philanthropic organizations are direct descendants of their founders’ flaws.

Still, good can come even of that.  Would Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence have been so compelling had he not struggled with the moral dilemma of owning slaves?  Maybe not, but I wonder what might have happened if he had actually freed all of his slaves during his lifetime.  What if other plantation owners were inspired enough to follow his lead?  Might that have prevented the Civil War?  Who knows, but others do tend to be more influenced by those who can walk the things they talk.

(Just to be clear, I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Thomas Jefferson.  Humans are creatures of contradiction, more so with the great ones.  The good Jefferson achieved far exceeds his moral shortcomings in my humble estimation.)

Watson and the Shark – John Singleton Copley, 1778


That brings us to another characteristic of the heartfelt cause: it has to cost something. The more it costs to support, the less likely  the cause is a mere publicity stunt.

I’ve been working at Canon for a few years now, and I’ve seen the amount of resources that the company spends on treating the earth with respect and being socially responsible.  The longevity and cost of their philanthropic efforts make me believe that they’re more than just surface-level gestures.

In contrast, sites like Twitter and Facebook make it easy to support a cause, but that very ease makes depth of conviction harder to prove.  I’m sure you’ve run into the social-media scene kids who chatter about their undying support of community and compassion, but who follow back less than 30 percent of their followers.    Real, honest-to-goodness celebrities tend to follow back less than 1 percent of their followers.

I get it: They’re VIPs, too busy doing important celebrity things to be bothered with reading the 140-character updates of their fans.  Or, maybe they’re just adhering to security precautions outlined in their esteemed, never-to-be-violated Celebrity Playbook.

They might have other, very good reasons for their lack of engagement, but it does make it harder for me to accept the authenticity of their cause if their cause involves caring about people, and not, for example, increasing awareness about the effectiveness of galvanized garden hoes.   Cause-promoting celebrities who follow hardly anyone can still convince me of their earnestness;  they’ll just have to sacrifice a bit more to prove their case.

The Third-Class Carriage – Honoré Daumier, 1860s


Making ourselves accessible to others does leave us vulnerable, but I don’t know how to conceive of caring without that. The people who’ve had the biggest impact on me were not the ones who shouted admirable platitudes from a distance.  They were the ones who risked something valuable to come close.

I wish I were better at doing that.  There are still a lot of sore spots in my life, and my instinct is to protect the wounds rather than to prepare an embrace, but I’m working on it.  Would you do the same? 

Together, let’s dare to collide into the lives of others with an open heart and a generous spirit. That is, as it happens, what Jesus did, and he is still the most famous one of them all.  Believe what you will about the man, but if you want to change the world, he’s not a bad act to follow.

Pity – William Blake, 1827



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I only write if I believe I have something worth writing and after I’ve spent some time finessing my thoughts.  If you’re following along by email, you’ll know right away when I have a new post waiting for you, whether that’s next week or a month from now.  It is very easy to unsubscribe, and I won’t send you emails about anything unrelated to my blog.  As always, Thank you for reading.


A Commercial that Inspires

I saw this Mastercard commercial when I was watching the Oscars a few days ago.  I haven’t found a better commercial to convey what this blog is about, so I going to adopt it as the unofficial commercial for the nsavides blog.  I hope Mastercard won’t mind.  With that said, take a look:

I love how the commercial associates the little guy’s pursuit of his vision with heavenly imagery.  (Yes, that’s a shining city on a hill where that small business rests.)  Exactly right.  The moment people stop following the herd and start following the inner passions and curiousities of their hearts, they take one step closer to heaven, whether they realize it or not.  

Another great thing about this commercial is that it comes from Mastercard, not exactly a quiet small-business kind of company.  You see, everyone can appreciate a more personal, less corporate world even a big corporation like Mastercard.  As far as I’m concerned, the size of an organization doesn’t determine whether it is a corporate one.  The way it treats  its customers and its employees does.  

Treat people right, and they’ll remember you.  This commercial makes me smile, and that helps me remember the Mastercard in my wallet when I’m contemplating a purchase.  Even so, to claim that a commercial only exists to sell stuff is corporate thinking.  A good commercial has intrinisic value in the way it inspires, amuses, or provokes its viewers.

Mastercard didn’t have to go the extra mile with beautifully rendered, playful animation.  For much less time and money, they could have hired an obnoxious announcer to tell you to use your Mastercard and use it now.  But they didn’t.  They cared enough to give you something special, something you might enjoy.  

You are free to reward them for their thoughtness by using your Mastercard more often, but you aren’t obligated to do so.  You could enjoy the commercial and then go back to using your Visa card, since there is no prequisite needed to watch it.

When people, businesses, and organizations do thoughtful and excellent things for their community that come with no obligations,  other people take notice.  That might mean putting on a free workshop, reaching out to those who can’t pay their own way, or just putting together a fun, well-made commercial that your audience will appreciate. 

If you think only in terms of doing things that can be measured immediately, then you won’t do any of that stuff.  But the world would be a sadder, more corporate, place if everyone thought like that.  Here’s the thing, if you improve the lives of those around you without asking for anything in return, eventually it’ll pay off.  At the very least, you’ll be doing your part to make the world less corporate.

The Mysterious, Illusive, and Tricksy Nature of Giving

(My apologies for the delayed arrival of this post.  Normally I publish a new post each weekend, and do I value consistency and dedication.   With that said,  this is a time of year that asks much from me and you, and avoiding other people and holiday festivities merely to update this blog on time strikes me as a tragically corporate mistake.  For your patience, I am grateful)

If there is any better way to determine the condition of someone’s soul that doesn’t involve their attitude toward giving, then I don’t know what it is. That’s probably why some people put considerable effort into disguising their true sentiments about giving. On the outside, they may be smiling , but in the privacy of their own hearts, they might be hiding obligation, or guilt, or manipulative attempts to get what they want.  Others give out of deeply held convictions and genuine affection, wanting nothing in return. It’s not easy to tell what is behind the giving, but then who said it was easy to see a soul as it is and not as it wishes to be seen.

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As counter intuitive as it may seem, sometimes the giving involved in charity work is more selfish than the giving involved in being excellent at work. In some circles, doing community service is the best way to gain status and influence. I prove this with the fading bruises I carry from the disdain of girls too preoccupied with missions work to treat me with respect. But then again, on more than one occasion, I volunteered to do community service for the sole reason of meeting girls. (It didn’t work so well; it rarely does when your heart isn’t in the right place.)

It is corporate thinking to assume that everything done on a volunteer basis is noble and good, while everything done to make money is selfish and base. A good employer will pay you based on the results you achieve, so that you have an incentive to aim for excellence.   And yet, there are various ways to measure performance, but I don’t know of any system that can accurately track every time an employee or business does more than what the job requires.

Think about the friendly, sincere smile given to the customer who won’t leave any feedback or the way someone spends extra time and effort to get the details right that most people won’t notice. Those kinds of things don’t show up on the annual employee reviews, but some employees still do those things because they want to share kindness and excellence with the world.

Consider also the restaurants that give you larger-than-expected portions or replace the tablecloths and flowers at every table, not just every day, but every few hours. These restaurants could make more money in the short-term by keeping the portions small and opting for plastic flower decorations, but they take pride in giving their guests great atmosphere and a satisfying meal experience.  In the long-term, those are the very details that distinguish a restaurant and help it find loyal patrons and financial success, but corporate thinkers tend to avoid this kind of long-term logic and focus only on short-term profit margins and other easily measured statistics.

I’ve read plays like Othello and seen films like the Lord of the Rings several times, but each time I discover something new, and those discoveries surprise and delight me.   That only happens when artists like Shakespeare, Hieronymus Bosch, Mozart, and almost everyone at Pixar labor to put elements into their work that most people won’t notice, but they put them in anyway out of a love for their craft and for the particulars of the things they create.

In every Canon digital SLR, even in the entry-level ones, there’s a handful of features that customers will not appreciate unless they have a strong background in photography.  Since some consumers lack the experience needed to appreciate such features, Canon could get away with not including them and selling the cameras for a greater short-term profit.  But, Canon takes pride in giving optical excellence to the world, and that’s one reason why I’m proud to work for Canon.

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The artists, craftsman, employees, managers, and entrepreneurs who strive to give the world more than what is expected from the jobs they perform, not out of an exclusive desire for profit, but out of a love and appreciation for excellence, give in a truer way than the self-righteous crones who sometimes pollute the  halls of the non-profit organizations they serve.   Intention is everything, and the ones who give best, whether they be volunteers or paid professionals, are the ones who would still contribute their gift even if God were the only one watching.

That kind of uncorporate giving doesn’t concern itself too much with how it will be measured and paid back right away.  Rather,  a sense of faith that some good will come of the effort, guides the gift into fruition. Here’s the secret though:  If  a worthy gift is given with good intentions, rewards will come whether in financial profit or in a new relationship or in sense of accomplishment, whether in this life or the next, but if you give only to get those rewards, then you’ll never see them.

When you stop and think about it, isn’t a good part of the charm about Christmas decorations found in the fact that they involve a little bit of effort beyond what is expected in daily life?  Lights, wreaths, and Christmas trees don’t have to be there, and yet they are, and so they become friendly beacons of goodwill to all who see them.  What if people took extra steps to spread a sense of celebration and kindness throughout the year?  Wouldn’t that be inspiring in a similar way to Christmas at its best and maybe even in a similarly profitable way?

In the nature of disclosure, I should mention that my own attitudes toward giving vary drastically from day to day. Just think of the vast disparity between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and you’ll get the idea. Some days, I regret to report, my attitude toward giving is essentially this, “well I’d rather burn in hell then help that no-good, dirty, rotten son of a biscuit. (I don’t usually think about biscuits in this context, but for the sake of civility, I’ll take some artistic liberties with the truth. Rest assured though, merry gentlemen and good ladies, the sentiment as a whole is an all too accurate transcription of the thoughts that plague me in my darker days.)

It’s no coincidence that the days where giving seems distasteful to me are the more hellish ones of my existence. The oppressive nature of my own selfishness consumes me and the passage of time becomes an awful, screeching, never ending torment. How much different are the rare days where I re-discover and rest in the love that medieval thinkers called the celestial music of the spheres, the love of God that keeps the planets in harmonious movement and powers every true instance of tenderhearted affection and brotherly love.  In those moments I can give graciously and unselfishly, without regard for whether my efforts will be appreciated or reciprocated.

I wish I could give like that more often, but my own concerns about my future and  career  and carefully crafted image, my insecurities and aches and dark spots, cloud my capacity to give in that way for too long.

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Still, in those few moments where I can give as I should, the universe appears right and good and beautiful. It’s hard; it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done but also one of the easiest, depending on my state of mind, to give like Jesus gave and still gives. I don’t know if I’ll ever get it consistently right, but it’s not a bad thing to try in this magical time of year, where we celebrate the birth of Christ, the greatest giver of gifts that the world of men has ever known.

Merry Christmas everyone, and may God bless us all!