SOCIAL commentators often criticize the American people for being too wrapped up in their lives, claiming that we have lost the collective idealism that seemed so pervasive 25 years ago. I think they are wrong. Not only has that idealism remained strong, it manifests itself today in an unprecedented spirit of giving and caring. Last year Americans donated nearly $80 billion to charitable causes and institutions, and more than 89 million people regularly volunteered. Almost half of all Americans over the age of 13 spend an average of 3.5 hours a week in the service of others. But statistics cannot convey the real face - and heart - of our giving. How can we place a monetary value on the efforts of millions who bring meals to the infirm, provide companionship for the elderly, work with the handicapped, or support the arts? Imagine life in communities with no volunteer organizations, no libraries, no emergency relief services.
The fact is that America has a deeply rooted heritage of giving that is as strong and diverse as its society. People from all walks of life believe they have a responsibility to give of themselves to others. This explains why so many people volunteer, and why most of the $80 billion raised last year came from individuals - not large corporations or foundations.
When Congress and the President proclaimed Nov. 15 as the first National Philanthropy Day, they called upon all Americans to commemorate the organizations and individuals who enrich our lives and strive to enhance our futures. We should celebrate the efforts of those who help the less fortunate, and should recognize that each of us can be a philanthropist simply by caring about each other. (Philanthropy comes from Greek words meaning the love of humankind.)
Albert Einstein said, ``It is every man's obligation to put back into the world at least the equivalent of what he takes out of it.'' National Philanthropy Day provides an opportunity to reflect on our efforts to show our ``love of humankind.'' Our national spirit of idealism remains true; the problem is, it's such a natural part of our lives that we tend to overlook it.
Douglas K. Freeman is president and chairman of the American Institute for Philanthropic Studies in Los Angeles.