Corrections or additions?
This article by Michele Alperin was prepared for the February 13,
2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
It’s Time to Give Here’s How
Even millions of dollars in market research may not
have come up with a book title more opportune for today’s emotional
climate than Meredith Gould’s new "Deliberate Acts of Kindness:
Service as a Spiritual Practice."
How did she do it?
Gould, at age 50, would probably tell you it grew naturally from her
life experiences, her sociological training, a bit of market research
spiced with intuition, plus a little nudge from the divine. As
of all stripes heard George Bush’s State of the Union Address last
month in which they were asked to quantify their service to others
in terms of lifetime volunteer hours, Gould offers them her own small
act of service — a handbook for people who want to help others,
but don’t know how to get started.
Gould will share her ideas for people who feel called to serve, and
sign copies of "Deliberate Acts of Kindness," published this
month by Image Books, a division of Doubleday, at Barnes & Noble in
MarketFair, on Wednesday, February 20, at 7 p.m.
Service and social action have permeated Gould’s own life and that
of her family. "I come from a long tradition of rabble
she says. Her great-grandfather Moses Gold, a rabbi and founder of
the Workmen’s Circle, was a social welfare activist for new immigrants
in the 1920s. Her father was a marketing executive and her mother
was a non-fiction writer and copyeditor.
As early as high school, Gould herself got involved in social justice.
She remembers leading a "revolt" of sorts, after Martin Luther
King was shot, by lowering the flag to half mast before school
granted permission. And even the sorority she admits to joining in
college, Alpha Xi Delta, "was very big on service."
In the late 1960s, Gould began to question her involvement in graphic
art and illustration. The Vietnam War was in progress; the United
States had just bombed Cambodia; and she recalls thinking, "People
are dying, and what am I doing? There is nothing political about art.
I need to be doing something socially relevant." So she dropped
out of college.
In the workaday world, Gould’s opportunities for social involvement
widened. As a secretary for a small multinational corporation, she
organized clerical workers and was fired. Then in the early 1970s,
while she was a clerk typist for AT&T Long Lines, "there was a
wildcat strike of the line workers." Raised by her parents never
to cross a picket line, she automatically picked up her purse to
the shop steward out. Ignoring the comment that "traditionally,
the girls in the office don’t walk with the boys on the line,"
she — with only two other women — found herself standing in
a hallway lined with men: "I walked out; they looked at me; and
they all started clapping," she says. Their reason: "Because
no clerical worker has ever walked with us."
Gould finished her undergraduate degree at Queens College. During
graduate school at NYU, Gould felt very fortunate to be among the
last of the sociology students to use the participant-observer
— before quantitative methods gained ascendancy. And indeed her
book reads almost like an edited set of notes made by a
sociologist working in a variety of community service environments.
Coming of age in the turmoil of early feminism —
she got her doctorate in 1980 — Gould studied the social
of roles and the distinction between sex and gender. In the 1980s,
she says, sociology departments were leery of hiring feminists like
her who were challenging the theoretical constructs of academic
The result, she says, was "the lost generation of
those women who came up for tenure between about 1984 and 1987 and
eventually moved out of academe. Gould, teaching at Rutgers in Camden,
did not get tenure. She was told her work was too popular and not
sufficiently rigorous. "My additional sin," she adds, "was
that I decided that I wanted to be Gail Sheehy when I grew up. I
to be a pop sociologist, and that doesn’t fly in academia."
Gould moved into government work, working on the Business Humanities
Project of the state Department of Higher Education. When the
job ended, Gould moved into advertising and public relations. But
in 1989 her business career ended in the face of what she dubs "a
call to write." She sold her house, intending to live off the
proceeds, and told herself, "I’m just going to trust that this
will come out O.K."
She got involved in yoga, hoping the gentle exercise might relieve
her chronic fatigue syndrome. "I was not interested in the
part," she says, but yoga "opened up a whole world of
schlepping." As she was immersing herself in a personal spiritual
search, the sociologist observer in her noted that her experience
was part and parcel of her age cohort: "We came out of the Vietnam
era interested in political action, then became completely
and got interested in navel gazing." However, by their late 30s,
this group had gotten burned out on big jobs, and their lives were
not going quite as planned.
"All of a sudden things spiritual looked like they might be more
interesting or more productive than political activity," says
Gould, so they turned inward.
Gould’s own spiritual exploration intensified with a move to Lenox,
Massachusetts, for a two-year "soul sabbatical" at the Kripalu
Center for Yoga and Health. Her motivation: "I’m 40, and I’ve
got to find out about this God thing." She supported herself by
freelancing and marketing consulting and eventually became director
of marketing for Kripalu.
When Gould moved back to New Jersey, she experienced an earth-shaking
spiritual intervention that confirmed writing as her chosen vocation.
She had ruptured a disc and remembers lying flat on her back,
praying, talking to God and asking, "OK, you’ve got my attention
— what am I supposed to be doing?" And a small, still voice
responded, "Get it, stupid. You’re supposed to be writing. This
is your gift. Write!"
Although Gould’s move from freelance articles to books may seem
Gould believes God had a role. It started when she became friends
with a writer who contacted her after reading one of her articles.
He had a friend at Storey Publishing who sometimes looked for writers
to pursue particular ideas. Gould met the editor, but Storey’s book
list just didn’t seem up her alley.
Around 1996, back in her role as spiritual seeker, Gould signed up
for a workshop on icon painting. She found herself at a silent
painting icons with religious and Orthodox priests, and attending
daily mass. She responded deeply, thinking: "I’m smitten with
this. This is the most powerful form of prayer that I’ve ever
Driving home, it occurred to Gould that she "really should call
this woman at Storey to try to keep the connection alive." When
she got home, she found on her answering machine that very woman,
offering her a book project that ended up as "Working at Home:
Making it Work for You." Remarking on the amazing
and the fact that the editor let her write a funny business book in
her own voice, Gould observed, "It was the hand of God made
Having been bitten once by the book bug, Gould was soon looking for
another book idea, and she found it in her own life experience. She
wrote "Staying Sober: Tips for working a 12-step program for
Her agent sold it to Hazleton, the biggest recovery publisher; and
she is now into royalties for it.
The fan mail in response to the book, says Gould, "got me thinking
about service." Being a good sociologist, she did a little
She asked herself, "What’s going on out there, and what’s going
on with me?" She also did an unscientific survey of her "smart
women friends," asking what they thought would be the next big
trend. Although none mentioned service per se, they predicted an
interest in spiritual issues.
"Combining what I knew about myself and my cohort of aging Baby
Boomers, my best guess was that service was going to be next big
she observes. She surmised that her "generation of malcontents
and navel gazers," who know that social action feels good and
that spiritual traditions require it "to move up the spiritual
food chain," were beginning to experience "the call to
In the same time frame, around 1999, Gould experienced the spiritual
side of service while caring for a dying friend. She believes this
"rabidly atheist" friend asked her to be on his care team
at the end precisely because she believed in God. The experience of
being with a dying person was immensely moving: "I realized I
was in the presence of the most luminous, numinous moment," she
says. "You can’t be with someone dying, starving, or bleeding,
or pick through the remains of the World Trade Center and not be
by that service."
From her own cumulative experience with service, says Gould, "I
realized that serving is in and of itself a spiritual practice. It
demands discipline, intentionality, paying attention, giving up the
self, and annihilating the ego."
"Deliberate Acts of Kindness" is an easy-reading handbook
of spiritual and sociological tips, writing exercises, and quotes
from spiritual masters. The first chapter explores the central role
of service in different spiritual traditions; the second focuses on
the "call to service;" the third on deciding where to serve;
the fourth on adapting the self to the organizational culture; and
the last on the "shadow side" of service.
For many readers, Gould’s book may provide the nudge that gets them
into the door of a service organization. For those already
and especially those from an established religious tradition, the
book may strike a discordant note.
Gould takes a humorous approach that some may finds at odds with her
point that service is a spiritual path. The book "may be offensive
to people who take religion very seriously," says Gould. But she
justifies her style: "I don’t think spiritual stuff has to be
grim. Look at God’s creation. He has to have a sense of humor. I’m
created in the image of God, and I like to poke fun at the ponderous,
self-important aspects of religion."
What is truly amazing about Gould’s latest book is how appropriate
it is for today’s post-September 11 environment. Gould herself was
a little horrified at how well she had picked a trend this time. She
remembers watching President Bush’s first speech after September 11,
having just finished looking at the book’s galleys: "I just sat
there with chills. I sat in the dining room and started crying because
I so believed in service. I know what it has done for me, and all
of a sudden there was this global attention to what we need to do
as humans for one another!"
— Michele Alperin
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