My apologies in advance for what is likely to be a divisive post. But, if I’m not going to be honest with myself when I write, or try to pussyfoot around certain subjects, then I’m not only wasting your time, but mine as well. And friends, time is not a commodity I’m willing to waste. I find it to be in very short supply these days.
Ready? Here we go.
A couple weeks ago I saw a post on Facebook in which someone was updating her friends about a family member who was in the hospital. Upon looking at the huge list of comments, this is what I found:
“Our prayers and thoughts are with you.”
“Praying for you and your family.”
“Hope things get better soon!!”
And on and on and on. About forty comments in I finally found someone who took a different tack.
“So sorry to hear about what you’re going through. Tonight I’ll make a casserole, and drop it off for you tomorrow. Give such-and-such my best. Love you guys.”
A casserole. Hmm.
This brought me back to a time a few years ago. There was a 3-4 block stretch in my town that had a massive sewage backup during a bad storm. Wouldn’t you know it, we won the lottery that night. Our entire basement was wall-to-wall water and shit, about six inches deep during the worst of the flooding. There wasn’t a single square inch left untouched. Eventually most the water and sewage receded back down the drains, but the basement was a disaster. Over the course of the next week, we had to get hundreds of gallons of foul liquid sucked out of the basement, throw away anything that was on the floor (leather furniture, beds, electronics, clothing, etc.), rip out the walls and carpet, and then start all over again. Oh, and we didn’t have the super-secret “Protection From Your Neighbors’ Defecation” rider on our insurance, so we were left holding the bag.
As word got out, we received similar messages to the ones above – “So sorry to hear about what you’re going through,” and “You’re in our thoughts and prayers,” and “What a sad situation!” They were all nice, well-intentioned condolences, and I appreciated the kind words during that hellish week, but they were about as helpful as a piece of single-ply toilet paper would have been while trying to mop up the mess in the basement.
You know what I remember from that time (other than being covered head-to-toe in the foulest muck I’ve ever come in contact with)? I remember the people who brought over meals so that we didn’t have to worry about that aspect of our lives. I remember the extended family that pulled together to take our children and get them out of the house (all of whom had bedrooms in the basement and nowhere to sleep during that time). I remember my in-laws helping us out immeasurably by getting a contractor at the house to help rebuild the walls once the demolition was done. Perhaps the most selfless act came from my next-door neighbors, who were dealing with their own shit-filled basement, but would take time to answer my questions or offer to let me tag along to Menards to pick up sheet-rock and supplies in their truck. They certainly didn’t need to help me. I wouldn’t have faulted them if they hadn’t. But they did, and I’ll be eternally grateful for it.
And so we come to it.
I’m all for prayer and good thoughts and hugs and juju and any other spiritual or emotional sentiment. Truly, I am. It’s nice to have that kind of support during dark times in our lives. But, if I’m being completely honest, prayers and thoughts without a corresponding action don’t do much good. In my opinion, the people who offer their good thoughts and nothing else are taking an action that helps *them* feel better as opposed to the person in need. It’s a way of thinking they’re offering support without having to roll up their sleeves and offer some real help.
Now, I know the argument – people’s prayers could have been what opened others’ hearts to provide food or babysitting or supplies or whatever. And that’s an argument I can’t really debate. That may be what happened, or that may be a bunch of hooey. In those first twelve hours or so, before anyone but us knew what was going on, there were no prayers because no one outside of our family unit had any idea about the devastation. The other argument could be that God/Buddha/Allah/The Universe was watching over us before the prayers of others brought the much-needed support. That’s also an argument I don’t have the answer to. But it’s my personal belief that action, not words (religious or secular), is what gets things done during those times.
This is why I do my very best to offer not only my words of support and encouragement, but also my time and effort, when someone is in need. For example, a few times a year I donate money to various causes such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Fund, the Smile Train (which provides cleft lip and palate surgeries to people in third-world countries), the Cascade AIDS Project, and the Lupus Foundation. I don’t have a lot of extra money to provide — $25 here and $50 there – but I’m hopeful the money is put to good use. I’ve also tried to be part of charitable exercises through my workplace, such as providing food, toys, school supplies, and winter coats to Twin Cities-based organizations that help low-income and underprivileged individuals. Speaking of work, I’ve been working for the same place for close to 18 years now. As such, many of my co-workers are like a second family to me. As people get sick or pass away, I try to join groups of people who cook meals, donate money, buy flowers, etc. to help lighten the load for people who need a little help. And those are just the big-ticket items. I try to make this choice a part of my day-to-day life. Last week I went to the grocery store and an old lady was standing in the parking lot, looking confused. I stopped by and asked if she needed some help. She said her car wouldn’t start. Instead of waving it off, I moved my car by hers and tried to jumpstart the battery. Even more “minor” than that, I hold the door open for people, offer a smile to folks I pass on the street, say hi to complete strangers, and pick up errant pieces of trash in the hallways of a building.
There’s so much more I’d like to do if I had the time and money. For instance, I look forward to being able to help at a local soup kitchen or church that provides meals for the community on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. It’s something I haven’t done yet – I’ve always had young children and haven’t wanted to take away a holiday from them, even if it would be good for them to understand the spirit of giving at those times – but I will definitely partake in activities such as these in the years to come.
I don’t say these things to toot my own horn, but rather to state that any action you take – big or small – will be a burden taken off of someone else’s shoulders. Keeping someone in your thoughts or offering them up to your deity of choice is a really nice sentiment, and despite what I’ve said above, I think those are worthwhile efforts. There are times when someone is going through a trial that is “unhelpable,” to make up a word – inoperable brain cancer, an accident that leaves someone crippled or paralyzed – and prayer for that issue is the only action you can take in hopes of finding a miracle. Outside of that, though, people need action. They need handwritten cards and letters. They need home-cooked meals. They need babysitters and clothes and donations. These are the things that get people by when darkness reigns and they need a little light.
So keep your eyes and ears open. Unfortunately, groups of family and friends usually have someone that’s going through a tough time. Offer a hand where you can. Also, every town of every size has opportunities to use your God-given abilities, from people building homes through Habitat for Humanity to people who knit beanies and blankets for newborns at the local hospital to the stereotypical “little old ladies” who help out at funerals by baking goodies and serving refreshments to a mourning family. Words are nice, folks, but action is so much better.
Until we meet again…