My grandmother’s name was Flora, and she was all heart. Born and raised in Bristol, Tennessee, she had a deep connection to Appalachia. On occasion, I would ride with her into the Appalachian Mountains with a station wagon full of groceries to be delivered to several dirt-poor families that she watched out for. There wasn’t an arrogant bone in my grandmother’s body, a sense that she understood poverty from the inside out and took it in stride – both the fact of being poor and her service to those that needed help. As a result, there wasn’t shame in these exchanges, and I so loved accompanying her. There were other times, however, when I was embarrassed by my grandmother’s service. She had a compulsion to give, and this meant that she wasn’t always able to discern when to step in and when to step back. On occasion, I stood as witness as my grandma insisted on paying for someone else’s groceries – a random person that she thought might be struggling. There were times when this gesture was a lovely act of generosity. Other times, standing next to her, I wanted to sink into the earth, my body full of dread - a dead giveaway that my grandmother had overstepped an invisible boundary.
How do we figure out what is ours to pick up and what is not, particularly when we are exposed to problems around the globe 24/7?
“Dharma” is a Sanskrit word with multiple layers of meaning, referencing, in part, individual conduct that conforms to the principles or laws that order the universe. We discern our dharma not by measuring up to expectations from the external world but rather by searching for the truth within. When we respond to the demands of the world by aligning those demands with our inner truth, we are responding dharmically. When a child is born as a musical protégée, the relationship between dharma and service is relatively easy to discern. In my own life, it is quite clear that it is not my dharma to become a pilot or an electrical engineer.
The work of Ashoka, an organization that supports the social enterprise movement, calls on “everyone to be a changemaker.” There is a sense of urgency in this mission, a recognition that the problems in the world have grown so complex and intertwined that we need all minds, hearts, and hands on board to respond. This is best done through honoring the notion of dharma. As we call on every individual to become a changemaker, we are really calling on each person to discern and respond to his or her dharma.