Surviving the season

Lee Stringer small.jpg

By: Lee Stringer

A bunch of years back, a long distance friend of mine from called me while in the throes of a depression she couldn't shake. An inexplicable malaise and despair had been dogging her for weeks. She couldn't drum up the stuff to even step outside her door. We first met in New Orleans a few years earlier, where she, I, and three of her friends spent the lion’s share of the day and evening together. And I suppose the impression she got from the extended, round robin conversations between us, was that I might be someone from whom to seek help out of the kind of fix in which she now found herself.

            I demurred that I wasn't qualified as a shrink.

            However, I did know one thing. I knew it as absolutely as a thing can be known, and it is this: the human spirit needs to give. It needs to be needed. It needs this as profoundly as the body needs air and water. I learned this the hard way; during the long months I was at Project Renewal’s 3rd Street Treatment Center in New York, agonizing my way back from over a decade of sucking on a crack pipe.

            "When you get up tomorrow," I told her, "go out, whether you feel like it or not, find someone who needs something, and try to help them."

            Despite her persistent dread, she managed to drag herself out of the house that next day and--her hobby being photography--took her camera with her. When she got back home, she was a few dollars poorer for having doled out spare change to many of the homeless people she had encountered on the street, but her camera was all the richer for the dozens of portraits she had taken of them.

            The next time she called, she was doing better. She had mounted a show of her new images and was now rooting around for ways she could help the people in them. A few months later she called to announce she had founded a Newspaper for--and sold by--homeless people. Not too much later she emailed me with the news that she had ascended to the presidency of a national independent newspaper association, which she managed to wrestle back from the brink of extinction.

            Last year she invited me to keynote at their annual conference.

            She was all take charge, and get it done.

            Her old self again.

            The person I knew and loved.

            But it’s not about the results. Not really. Not about solving problems. The takeaway of the whole episode is this: In giving, we access the better angels of our nature. We make for a better us. The more we each engage in such business, the fewer problems there will be needing solution in the first place.

            This holiday season, midst the anxieties of shopping and shipping, and the hurry of parties and people, give yourself a break. Find respite by reaching from the inside out—a small step that I have seen can change everything.

            Give. Then give again.

            Get into the habit.

            No one deserves it more than you.


Lee Stringer is a writer who lived, homeless and crack-addicted, on the streets of New York City from the early eighties until the mid-nineties. He is a former editor and columnist of Street News. His essays and articles have appeared in a variety of publications, including The Nation, The New York Times, and Newsday. He currently lives in Mamaroneck, New York. He is the author of Sleepaway School and Grand Central Winter. Stringer also took part in a discussion on writing with Kurt Vonnegut for a book entitled Like Shaking Hands With God. He is also a former client and member of the Board of Trustees of Project Renewal.