During the Christmas season, I often wish that I’d spent the past year being a better person—kinder, more thoughtful, more actively engaged in helping. As a result, I often make a futile year-end attempt to cram 12 months’ worth of doing good into a spree of charitable giving, cookie baking and good will toward men.
While some of those efforts might be positive actions, they are not transformative. Typically, I move into the new year with the same inclination to do only those good or kind things that are convenient—or at least minimally troubling—to my daily life.
I can ease my guilt by noting that I’m busy. It’s not my responsibility. I don’t have time. But if I’m honest, I know there are other people who are just as busy, just as time-pressed, just as pulled in multiple directions as I am. Yet they still manage to extend themselves for others. In fact, I live with one of those people.
I’ve written several posts that reference my energetic, extroverted, husband Gary, who can make a friend in a minute and decimate the English language in a nanosecond. He won’t enjoy being a featured player in this post, but he illustrates my point. There are people who pick up the slack for those of us whose good intentions are rarely matched by our actual actions. People who give of themselves, not just during this season of giving, but all year round.
Gary does the ordinary good neighbor things—lend some tools, pick up the mail, give a hand with the shoveling. But while a good neighbor might lend you his snow blower to clear your driveway, a great neighbor, aka Gary, will use his snow blower to clear your driveway and all the others on the block, and all the sidewalks, too, before you can even ask to borrow it.
Gary is a man in motion, but he always has time for a cheerful greeting to everyone he meets. And on hot summer days, he can often be found handing out freezer pops, ice-cold water, or ice cream treats to postal delivery workers, UPS drivers or anyone else in the vicinity of our house who looks like they could use a break from the heat.
But he doesn’t confine himself to the quick and easy kindnesses. He tackles the hard things, too. When my mother was sinking ever deeper into Alzheimer’s, he took her for countless rides, which soothed her agitation, and brought her butter pecan ice cream cones, and teased her gently, and made her smile, when I could not. When a friend was terminally ill, Gary visited regularly, and carried out tasks for him that he could no longer do, and eased his mind by pledging to take care of unfinished business after he was gone.
And Gary doesn’t only come to the aid of family and friends. He does things for people he scarcely knows. He mobilized a group of his friends to donate $200 worth of diapers to a struggling new mother, and to buy bus passes for a woman who walked miles through all kinds of weather to get to her job at a fast food restaurant. He didn’t know either young woman, beyond a quick chat while purchasing a morning cup of coffee. He just saw a need and stepped up to help.
When people became dismayed by the declining health of our local river, marked by high levels of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, aquatic plants choking the channels, and large algal blooms each summer, Gary didn’t just talk about it. He reached out to the local college for help from experts there, began working with the area health department and local governments, and organized the Healthy Pine River citizens group to work on restoring the river. And though meetings and bureaucracy are among his least favorite things, he deals with both in order to help make things better.
Gary is not the only person with a gift for giving. He’s just the one I know best. Through him, I see the value of everyday kindness over seasonal generous gestures. To paraphrase a line from the movie, The Bishop’s Wife, the meaning of the season lies in each of us putting forth loving kindness, warm hearts, and outstretched hands—in acting with everyday kindness, every day. Instead of big plans for character reform that come to naught this year, I’m going to focus on doing just one kind thing a day, large or small. I’ll let you know how that worked out next year. Meanwhile, Merry Christmas to all.