It Goes Both Ways

by Crystal Torres on April 23, 2014

I’ve been following The Muse on Facebook. Mostly, it makes me really happy to have the reminder of how many great things are happening. There are so many unsung little moments of people doing kind things for each other. It’s nice to see a place where these acts are celebrated. Still, sometimes even that seems to bring me down. What am I doing to make the world a better place? Not nearly enough, I reckon.

I keep wanting to do something big, something meaningful. I keep wanting to live a life that makes a difference, in a good way. I want to leave the world just a little bit better for my having been here. I still don’t feel like I’ve done that. I get more than my fair share of accolades. When I took on the orphaned kittens everybody kept telling me what a good person I must be.

I don’t feel like a particularly good person. There were these small helpless things that would surely die if nobody took care of them and it didn’t appear that anybody else was eager to do it. I didn’t seek out helpless things to take care of. I didn’t want helpless things to take care of. I cried when I drove home with the third kitten, already feeling overwhelmed by the weight of it all. I cried again, when each of the three kittens died. For all of my sleepless nights, and extravagant vet bills, the kittens didn’t make it after all. It’s hard to pat myself on the back for that.

My entire career has been spent working for small nonprofits that pay little but do great things. Yes, the work is important, but it’s my job. I get paid, and my job is not the same thing as The Work. Much of today I’ve spent trying to troubleshoot how to give one of our alumni access to our online forum. He hasn’t been able to log in, and it’s my job to help him. What he is doing with the Mbuti Pygmy tribe in Congo, that is The Work. That is the sort of stuff that makes me proud to be a part of this organization.

I love what I do and the amazing people that I get to meet here, but I am only acting in a small support role. Every job I’ve ever had has just been small things. Like Saint Therese of Lisieux I have tried to do these “small things with great love,” but they are still just small things, just my job. That is not the same as making a difference.

Going back to the kittens, after three weeks of sleepless nights, and that last rough night begging a dying kitten not to die, I was kind of a wreck when the third kitten died. I had tried so hard and they weren’t any better off than they would’ve been if I’d rejected the challenge. Still I have this job and I needed to go into work, under slept and broken hearted though I was. The day’s work was the best thing that could have happened to me.

I was more than distracted, I was useful. I got to take care of people. I got to feed the students and put a Band-aid on one of our senior instructors and remind our workshop coordinator to put on her sweater before she got too cold. When the first kitten died I threw myself into taking care of his brother, who was still very weak. When that brother died I focused keenly on taking care of the third kitten. When the third kitten died, I would have fallen apart without the people at my work who let me take care of them. I felt like a horrible person for failing the kittens, healthy people who didn’t need more than breakfast and Band-aids were my salvation from that despair.

It’s the classic, textbook debate over the possibility of true altruism even existing. If being selfless makes us feel good, is it truly selfless? I like taking care of people. It’s hard for me to think I’ve given any kind of a gift when I feel like I get so much more in the exchange. Even when I tried to, when it was my whole intention to give something away selflessly, I feel like I get so much out of it that it doesn’t count as a good deed anymore. I am too grateful to the people who let me help them to think of myself as the giver.

I was picking up fast food a few weeks ago. It took about an hour to get all three kittens, in their turn, awake enough for their bottle, well-fed, bellies rubbed, all cleaned up and back to sleep. They had to be fed every two hours. So basically, I was getting one hour on, and one hour off, around the clock. I had neither time nor energy for cooking but I still had two kids to feed.

There I was at the nearest fast food place trying to pick up lunch for everyone before the next feeding started. I was juggling the bags and drink carrier by myself when an older gentleman offered to open the door for me. I thanked him, but I still needed to get some napkins and ketchup tossed into the bags. He asked me to tell him when I was ready and he would get the door then. This just seemed like foolishness to me. As exhausted as I was I didn’t see any reason to make myself a burden on others. I hip checked the door for myself and made a hasty, self-sufficient, exit.

That’s the kind of person I try to be. I try to give more than I take. It occurs to me now that I’m doing it wrong. Who knows what burdens that older gentleman has been carrying? How nice it could have been for him to have held the door for the frazzled woman with her arms full. What if my act of kindness for that day could have been to allow someone else to pay it forward?

If I want to be part of making the world a better place shouldn’t I be willing to be both parts of the good deed cycle. Maybe random acts of kindness need to be like improv to work. Maybe we have to learn to say “Yes, and…” or the bit just dies. I have been so determined to do things for myself, to be a burden to no one. Maybe that has been a really selfish way of living. There have been so very few people in my life who I’ve trusted enough to be willing to feel in their debt. You know what? It isn’t all about me.

One of the things I’ve gained from following The Muse is that other people need to give too. So if I really want to be a good person, I think I need to get better at receiving. That is my new commitment on this journey to being a better person. I’m going to try to say yes more. It’s not going to be easy, but that’s how I’ll know that I’m doing my best. That’s all.
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