Maya Angelou once observed that "giving liberates the soul."
You have to think about that for a moment to have it make any sense. To begin with, one must believe there's a moral core in our physiology that ultimately determines who we are.
Angelou wasn't talking about a soul that floats around the inside of religious temples as the property of preachers, bouncing off of stained glass windows and lingering over candles that burn for holy tribute and promised salvation.
She was talking about the soul as an element of conscience, and giving as an obligation to improve the human condition.
She was talking about humanity at its best.
I'm thinking about that today, the last day of 2007, when everyone is scratching around trying to figure out who or what rates being acknowledged as man of the year, politician of the year, athlete of the year or even animal of the year.
My initial thinking was to nominate God as entity of the year, because he's the most popular guy around these days, being discussed, debated and defined by presidential candidates looking for the ultimate endorsement.
But hypocrisy outweighs sincerity in the secular environs of office-seeking, so we'll just let God go about his business without dragging him into yet another popularity contest. He has enough to do.
Taking a tip from Maya Angelou, my choice for people of the year are the givers among us. I don't mean just those with big bucks or big names who suddenly discover charity, although they count too. But while Brad Pitt's image shines a little brighter for helping to rebuild homes in New Orleans, and while a gift from Henri and Janice Lazarof to the L.A. County Museum of Art worth more than $100 million will certainly raise the city's cultural barometer, that's not what I'm talking about.
I'm not even referring to those who give their last penny to help fight cancer or heart disease or any one of the afflictions that sap our will and take our lives. The "little givers" were among those who ponied up $295 billion in cash donations to U.S. charities last year, proving that pennies do count.
But money isn't the only gift we give.
Giving takes on a new meaning when one includes those who donate blood, a kidney or bone marrow to recipients they don't even know, and will their bodies to be harvested for the living when death takes them in the early years of their own lives.
Volunteers give of themselves when they work without pay or acknowledgment at hospitals, schools, churches, senior centers, veterans rehabilitation units, youth havens or in their own neighborhoods simply because it's the right thing to do. Some are retirees, some not; some offer their skills, some their hands.
Here's to them for what they do and why they do it.
As I think back about the givers I have written about over a period of many years, two stand out. Their names are Mike Farrell and Jerry Rubin. One is a well-known actor, the other a lesser-known advocate for peace, love and a heavenly environment.
As president of Death Penalty Focus, Farrell is a voice for those who believe that capital punishment is the devil's tool, an unevenly applied form of brutality imposed on America's forgotten people, usually racial or ethnic minorities who lack media attention or can't afford the kinds of lawyers who charge by the minute and don't do pro bono work.
What impresses me about Farrell, a soft-spoken man, is that he doesn't just take his case for human dignity and the value of life into the purified chambers of a liberal audience, but debates it in the unfriendly halls of those who are convinced that an eye for an eye is the way to go. He withstands shouts and vilification with an equanimity of spirit possessed only by those comfortable with their beliefs and willing to tolerate abuse on their behalf. It's what makes the soul glow.
Jerry Rubin, not to be confused with the late Yippie of the same name, is the solemn guy you see sitting at an Alliance for Survival table on a corner of Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade selling bumper stickers and badges against war, censorship, global warming, tree-cutting and other human indecencies.
If commitment is the ultimate form of giving, he's given a lot. Utilizing just about every form of protest against violence and nuclear proliferation, Rubin has gone to jail five times, endured hunger strikes about 30 times, picketed God-only-knows how many times and even walked from L.A. to Washington, D.C., over a nine-month period to prove how much he loves peace. Often noisy, always committed, he marches on while others fall by the wayside.
So many give in the name of humanity that a scroll bearing their names would reach from here to heaven. You may not always know who they are, but that doesn't matter. It's enough to realize that they're the liberated souls who ennoble us all.