Jenn Hoos Rothberg -

Dec 19, 2023

Small Acts of Joy and Service

communities gathering and building

Our team has a small garden of painted rocks in the common area of our office. At the end of each year, we harvest new stones, play some music, get out the paint pens, and gather as a team to celebrate the big and small wins we achieved together. It is a way to make visible the intangibility of our social change work, recognizing the many milestones achieved along the journey to realize our mission.

We started this tradition in 2021, marking the first time our team saw each other in person since the start of the pandemic. We gathered outside and painted rocks. We read each aloud, discussed what made them rock-worthy, and then imagined the new milestones we would get to paint the following year.

Now, a few years in, the garden is blooming. It is a joy to both maintain and add to our rock garden each year. While it needs little care – no water or sunlight required here – it does a whole lot to care for us. Every time we walk by it, we have the opportunity to reminisce, taking in the full bounty of the milestones in our garden. Each one reminds us of the deep relationships we have built with our partners and of their commitment to bringing about tangible change in service of a more socially connected society.

Here are some of the rocks there now:

  • The birth of Nurture Connection, a network of parents, healthcare workers, researchers, and policymakers dedicated to advancing early relational health for children and their families.
  • The day the David M. Einhorn Center for Community Engagement opened its doors at Cornell University to infuse community-engaged learning into every facet of student life.
  • The selection of more than 30 Healing Starts Here projects by New Pluralists to foster community repair and help bring people together in the face of hyper-polarization and divisions.
  • The launch of A Call to Connection spearheaded by Sacred Design Lab and the Greater Good Science Center to encourage Americans to lead a more socially connected life.
  • The time our team of seven sat around my kitchen table to have a heart-to-heart conversation about the ruptures we needed to repair in our own lives.

And oh, so many more.

Besides our communal rock garden, we have personal ones, too. These individual gardens represent the rockstars on our team, the people who help make these milestones happen. (I know, I know… I’m a total geek for puns.) One by one, we painted an adjective on a rock that best exemplified a colleague and placed it in front of them as a physical touchstone – a memento of what we see in each other. Adventurous. Caring. Grounded. Creative. Passionate.

We recently shared our rockstar ritual with Shawn Jenkins, the newest member of our team now leading our Bridging Strategy to support Gen Z in becoming the next generation of civic bridge-builders. He joined us back in October, and if you have not met him yet, I hope you will go Through the Prism with Shawn. And if you are curious, you can ask him about the rock-jectives he received when you talk with him next.

As I reflect on 2023 – a year that I could easily divide into a before and after – I am focusing my attention on the small acts of joy and service that helped me get up in the morning. While they may not be rock-worthy milestones, they are what’s anchoring me right now. Like that small cup of coffee that my husband Jon brought to my bedside when I was running late for work. Like the moment I held our daughter tightly in my arms during a tearful goodbye, and she courageously walked into her classroom. Like the handwritten note of gratitude I received from a cold call I answered. Like the quick introduction I made between two people who shared they were destined to do great things together. Like the lighting of the last candle on the eighth night of Hanukkah, wishing for a miracle to illuminate the path forward and shine a light on all our humanity.

These days, instead of asking “How are you?”, I find myself asking “How can I help?” The simplest acts of service that stem from this question – a shared meal, a quick phone call, a listening ear – are what we all need to lift up one another, and ourselves. What may feel like an inconsequential act of compassion and care has infinite potential to bring us out of the darkness.

I can’t help but be sentimental during this time of year, and the moment we are in now brings another layer of heaviness, heartache, and reflection. While I often yearn for answers and solutions, I’m also trying to remind myself of what Rainer Maria Rilke told his protégé in 1903:

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms or books that are written in a foreign tongue. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live your way some distant day into the answers.”

If you are also finding yourself holding lots of questions, I hope you will try on “How can I help?” – and be open to how you can love and live this question. In one distant day, I hope we will arrive at the answers together.

Jenn Hoos Rothberg leads Einhorn Collaborative. Learn more about our work and more about Jenn. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jenn’s blog posts.