When I was in college, my mom had a baby. This new child, my youngest brother, was almost 22 years younger than me. It was a very exciting event in our lives, and I thought it was cool to come home from school and hold this little guy in my arms, thinking about what it would be like when I would one day have my own children. I’d walk him, sing him to sleep, play with him – all the things I knew I’d do one day when I became a father.
One evening, I was watching TV while I was holding him so my mother could make dinner. He got increasingly fussy, and I got increasingly annoyed. I wanted to watch my show, and he was getting in the way of that. This was before the days of DVR, so there was no pause button, no ability to record and watch it later. I wanted to go dump him off on mom and get back to The Simpsons, but on some level, I knew that was a pretty silly thing to do. I should just figure out what he needed and take care of it, my own wants be damned. I was faced with a choice between the needs of this helpless little child and my own desire to be entertained, and I was actually struggling with that choice. I don’t like to be inconvenienced, and that’s that.
And that’s when it struck me: selfishness really gets in the way of the important things in life.
Lesson learned? Not a chance. Sure, that thought stuck with me. I think I even chose my brother over the show that night (what a hero, right?). But selfishness remained a feature of my life for however many years its been since that day.
Fast forward to today. I have a wife and five kids. I’ve had to learn to give up lots of shows, lots of sleep, and lots of lousy days at work, and lots of other things to take care of my family. In some ways, I’ve learned to be a lot more generous than I was when I was younger. For example, I used to be pretty stingy. Now, I have no problem writing a check, or providing food to be given to the hungry. Yesterday, my wife and kids dropped off 15 meals at Catholic Charities to help the needy. I’m happy to know that my money is going to good causes. Just so long as I don’t actually have to do anything about it myself.
I remember how once, in high school, I helped the Missionaries of Charity do a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless. It was a moving experience. One I never did again. I can think of several examples of charitable activities I’ve dabbled in, only to let them go because I just didn’t feel like doing them. I had to get up early, or give up a Saturday, or spend my coveted free time working on something other than what I wanted to do.
You see what I’m saying? I’m awful at this stuff. In the reigning trio of social justice buzzwords – time, talent and treasure – treasure is the only one I’m willing to part with. And that only in reasonable quantities.
But I’ve been thinking lately about all of this. I’m at a point in my life where things have reached a certain stasis, and every waking thought isn’t occupied with getting a roof over our heads or a steady job or better relationship with my wife and kids, or all the myriad things I’ve worried about day and night for the past decade. Sure, I’m still working on improving all of those things, but in a very real sense, I’ve come up for air and realized that life goes on without me and my concerns. The world isn’t the big, bad, scary place that I thought was keeping me down. It’s a place that’s certainly full of big and bad and scary things, but it’s also full of opportunity. For success, for financial gain, for happiness, for joy, and for acts of charity.
Another experience sticks in my mind from college. During my semester abroad, I traveled a good bit in former Soviet Bloc countries like Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. I’ll never forget arriving at the train station in Krakow and seeing a young man with no arms sitting in a blue t-shirt, a withered paper cup between his stumps, begging for coins. I looked at him and I just knew with certainty that he wasn’t born this way. He lost those arms in an accident, probably working (at a far too young age) with some kind of machinery. And there was nothing to be done about it. His life went from promising to painful, just like that. And I saw this repeated again and again – the poverty, the squalor, the lack of shelter in the bitter cold of these countries where my ancestors worked and lived. The images are burned in my memory. I made a commitment to myself at that time that some day, when I was successful enough, I’d go back and find a way to help those people.
That was over a decade ago. I don’t know if there’s a charity there that helps these people, but I’ve remembered the commitment I made, and I want to find it. Or something like it. In a way, it’s not even as much about the people I could help as it is about me. Maybe that’s just another form of selfishness, but I don’t see how I can ever really become a better man than I am today unless I go outside of myself, out of my own head and my own problems and do for others. I hope that even if I start a journey toward charity for the wrong reasons, it will be transformative enough that I’ll begin doing it for the right ones.
I’ve had the benefit of being surrounded by family and friends who would drop anything to help me, or even perfect strangers. My wife is that kind of person. My grandfather was that kind of person.
I want to be that kind of person too. And I’ll never get there unless I learn to not just accept, but embrace inconvenience.