Tuesday, July 8, 2008


This past weekend a friend, who is also my neighbor and a member of my church, reached out and performed an incredibly thoughtful, generous act of service for my family for no reason other than he saw a need and he acted on it. It was a completely selfless act because there was no obligation, no past debt he was trying to make up for, no family connection he felt a sense of obligation to. He just did it. This act was significant enough it forced me to think about things a little different, how good am I about receiving such help, how good am I about giving it?

In fact, I have received a lot of help in my life, so many people have looked out for me, reached out to me, nurtured me, helped me pursue my goals, helped me to survive. I definitely would not be where I am without kindness.

Of course, like most people, my family has been the place where I've received the most help from. Right now, my wife is extroardinary for the amount of effort she puts in each day to make my life easier, more pleasant, more beautiful. In fact, she helps me in so many countless ways that she's often afraid I will take (or have taken) advantage of her goodness, generosity and mercy. It's just simply impossible to thank her enough for all of the kind deeds she does for me each day.

Before her, my parents were my primary source of strength, especially growing up. My very survival dependended on their actions. And they nurtured me enough to instill in me a faith in God, a desire to educate myself, to be a good person. But even beyond that, being out of the house and single for so many years, I could always count on them being in my corner, willing to take a phone call if I needed to talk to someone, always rooting for me.

But receiving and giving help from your family is tricky. There's a component of obligation and duty behind it. I go to work each day and work as hard as I can so I can provide an income for my family. I could, I guess, horde every last penny I made because I earned it, it's mine. But of course, it's my duty and legal obligation to provide for my children and my wife. So, it's a service, but I hardly get much credit for giving it. What counts more is what I do above and beyond the service. What do I do after a long day at work? How much extra time and energy do I give to my kids or to my wife. This is a point of struggle for me because I just have too many bad habits, for too long in my single days I could get away with plopping down after work and relaxing for a while, zoning out at the tv or with a book or at the computer. Obviously, those are habits I need to break.

Receiving help from friends is also tricky. If its a good friend where there's been a history of give and take its one thing. I have had friends like that. Roommates in college have helped me maintain and repair my barely functional college cars. They've followed me back to Yuma (they were also heading there) to make sure I made it. I helped them with their Calculus homework as they made attempts to piggyback off of me through engineering school (unfortunately my college car eventually died, each of them eventually changed their major).

Receiving help from more distant friends, or friends where you have a more shallow history with is still trickier. I have noted on this blog that I grew up poor. Its a challenge to grow up that way, especially if you are poor relative to your peer group, something that always seemed so obvious to me. It probably wasn't as true as I thought. I good childhood friend of mine's dad was a manager (I think?) at Safeway. They did ok, I guess, but at best they were marginally in the middle class. Their house was like mine but in better condition. But still, I grew up feeling more disadvantaged than my peers, which is not a comfortable feeling. As a result, we were one of those church families who were always thought of when it came time to do a service project. This was a major source of humiliation for me.

There was a youth service project where they planned to paint our house one Saturday. I did not want to be there, I wanted to figure out some way of being gone that day, I just couldn't face these people, who were roughly my age, coming to my house to do a welfare project. So, I did the completely unsensible thing and slept in as long as I could. I remember hearing them outside my house complaining about me while I pretended to sleep. My parents were pretty passive which is why I got away with this. Finally, though, I was forced out of the house to help, but needless to say I was not a grateful receiver. My pride was hurt.

But really, part of living on this earth is to develop gifts and talents, but its impossible to be good at everything. We will never have enough resources to satisfy every want or need. But our lives are richer when we share. When we give and receive with an open heart we will have much more, we will receive gifts we would never have even thought to pursue on our own.

My older sisters, especially compared to me, are brilliant gift givers, but maybe it was because they had so much practice. My parents were the opposite of brilliant gift givers, they usually just stuck with cold, hard cash. So, my older sisters filled in, making sure me and my little sister were well supplied on Christmas... They were also out of the house well before I was, and just seemed to always have a better sense of the world than me. They have travelled much more widely than I have even now for example. They have opened my world up in so many ways. Given me books or music that I may never have discovered otherwise. Only a few years ago, one sister gave me a subscription to the New Yorker, and as a result, nudged me a little more to the political left. I guess that's a nice gift.

But going back to this July 4th weekend act of service, I want to publicly thank my friend. Let me tell you what he did. I bought this old house in Tempe, my first house ever. I am really deficient in house maintenance, I'm learning, but slowly. It's just not a talent, and I don't seem to have a knack for it. Probably, I don't work hard enough at it either.

Well, anyway, this house has a sprinkler system, but a manual one. So, I would turn on the sprinklers as regularly as I could remember, but obviously not regularly enough. As a result, my grass has never really been green, just kind of yellowish and prickly, hard to walk on without shoes.

My friend is an expert in the landscape arena and had just finished installing this incredibly, professional lawn at his house. As a result of his expertise, I asked him a while back what it would take to install an automatic sprinkling system in my house, and he gave me a few hints, and suggested that he could help me do it sometime.

A lot of time had pass since that conversation, but I made no specific efforts to enlist his help. Really, I'm very, very bad at asking people for help, even when I desperately need it. Well, this past July 4th weekend, I went up to Utah with my family. We left a house key with his wife so that she could to check up on our house (and our newly acquired cat). When I came back from the trip the next Sunday evening, I discovered a brand new, top of the line automatic sprinkler system installed.

My friend took it upon himself to do this for me while I was gone without telling me. He had a spare timer, but he had to buy the valves and the connectors (I'll pay him back, I promise), and he spent significant time that Saturday procuring the parts and installing the system. So, now my grass is as green and as soft as its ever been.

Again, it was a really generous thing for him to do, completely unexpected. It left me wondering what similar thing could I do for someone else. I'm still thinking....

1 comment:

H said...

You'll find a service to give if you are constantly looking. If you are always aware of what is going on around you, you will find something to do for someone else. If you put a chair up when you're not assigned to do it, put the paper by someone's doorstep, or put the dishes in the dishwasher it will feel good. Start small and then it will be easy to see what your big gift might be. It's good that you are just thinking about it.