Live Well, Do Good

Review: Living Well While Doing Good by Donna Schaper

February 20, 2013 - David McConkey

It is with great enjoyment that I note how someone else has approached the same subject as this website: Live Well, Do Good.

Living Well While Doing Good is a fine book by Donna Schaper. Short and readable, it has lots of food for thought. Brimming with stories, images, and metaphors, for me reading it was like listening to a sermon in a church. And I mean that in a good way!
Schaper’s perspective is as a long-time social activist (she mentions she was the first women trained by Saul Alinksy). She lives in New York City and is a United Church of Christ minister. The author of some 30 books, Schaper wrote this one in 2007. (She currently blogs on the Huffington Post.)

Checking Wikipedia, I see that the United Church of Christ has a liberal and social activist orientation, including the support of gay and women’s rights. This viewpoint strikes me as similar to the United Church of Canada. (The two denominations have similar names, but are in different countries and are not affiliated.)
Here is how Schaper describes herself, her theme, and her approach: “As an almost gracefully aging hippie, as well as a mother, gardener, writer, and major goofballer, I have lived these questions for almost 60 years. I think I have a few answers, mostly learned from failures and restarts.” 

Schaper’s style reminds me of the humor and down-to-earth wisdom of early Canadian feminist Nellie McClung. For example, here is Schaper on work and home life: “As feminists, we might object to women becoming more like men, and [instead] insist on a world and an economy where men also become more like women.”
The core message of the book is to remember to “live well” and not be overwhelmed by our efforts to “do good.”

She starts the book by recounting a time when her work had swamped her personal and family life. 

“I had become one of those activists that I cannot abide,” she says. She had lost her “sense of balance and humor,” which had become buried by “overwork, conceit, indispensability, and the other usual traits of ineffective activists.”

“Our dilemma is simple enough: how do we live well while doing good? Do we save or savor the world? Which do we do today? Which tomorrow?” 

“The balance comes from lighting smaller fires. It means doing small things well and fearing large things poorly done. It means fearing grandiosity above all. It means knowing what an enemy self-righteousness is to the activist, who must do less in order to achieve more.”  

This balance means defining for ourselves “what constitutes enough.” She notes that our society is always trying to do more, but we ourselves must resist that temptation. “Many others will be happy to define enough for you. Their measure for your life will always be too much. Enough is yours to define. It holds the key to living well while doing good.”

The key strategy?  Simplify.

Most of the book is made up of her reflections, observations – mediations really – on how we might simplify. She applies her simplifying strategies to a number of aspects of life, including activism, money, children, family, household, romance, and joy.

Here are a few of her specifics:

Simplifying Money:  
Effective charitable giving “deserves the same kind of planning we use for retirement or for a trip. It deserves thought, followed by action.” 

How do we respond with all the pressing needs of the world? “I want to do my part. I am even willing to do more than my part,” she answers, but she is also emphatic when she asserts: “I am not willing to spend my one precious life in guilt.”

She says that she never gives to beggars (not even spare change), opting instead to donate to efforts for “long-term sustainable change against poverty.” She chooses a few organizations and gives them larger amounts; she favors paying well for good administration in charities; and she and her husband give away 10 per cent of their (after taxes) income.

Simplifying Control:
Don’t take on everything. Do less, but do it better. “Most activists would be twice as good if they worked half as hard. That is the math of living well while doing good.”

Schaper has an amusing way to deal with all those additional seemingly important things that we might do, could do, are supposed to do. Pretend to appoint your own personal “Leave It Alone” Committee, and assign those tasks to your “Committee”! 

Simplifying Size:  
“Living well and doing good are twins, flip sides of the same coin. Thus while doing good by staying fixed on the possibility of a new, different, and better world; we live well.”

I like the way she describes this concept: “We live enjoying the world of things and markets; we do not live as consumers, but instead we live materially, well.”

“We don’t become extremists, we simply draw people to the power of our vision by living well, outside the well-advertised routes . . . We also live beyond ideology and refuse to force our points of view down other people’s throats. We attract rather than persuade, witness rather than evangelize.”

Simplifying Joy:
“Once the boundary between inner life (living well) and outer life (doing good) dissolves, we are prepared for the exuberance and froth and fullness of it all. Glee is the glue between living well and doing good.”

In Living Well While Doing Good, Donna Schaper has written a personal declaration that is thoughtful, caring, and honest. She very effectively addresses the important question: How can we make an impact while we make a good life?

“Many think there is no way to live well while doing good; I think just the opposite,” Schaper concludes.

“There is no way to do good without living well.”

* * * 

See also:

Donna Schaper on      (on

Giving: How Each of Us Can Change the World 

Six Words To Describe A Life? 

Remembering Nellie McClung

Live Well, Do Good 

The Cynic’s Guide to Holiday Donations 

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