I walk the streets of downtown Chicago, lost in the details of some insignificant thought. Though I walk through a crowd, I am alone.
Interruption – a man calls out to me. His dirty, cardboard sign tells of his situation. Layer upon layer of well-worn clothing combine to keep him warm against the chill. He asks me for change. “I just want something warm to eat,” he pleads.
Looking at him, I ponder how to respond. I run through my usual answers.
I could ignore him. But I’ve already acknowledged his request so that would be rude.
I could pretend I’m not able to give. “Sorry, I don’t have any change.” Although it is painfully obvious that is a lie.
I could do what I often do and brush him off with a hurried no. “Not today,” I’d mutter without any discussion of why today in particular isn’t good for giving.
Or I could reach into my wallet, grab a dollar bill, place it in his cup, and move on with life – content that I’d fulfilled my duty to generosity today.
These options flash through my head in an instant. I weigh each of them in the span of a few heartbeats. A recent event comes to mind, and I know what to do.
Sustenance of life
Earlier in the week, my wife and I prepared a meal for some friends of ours. They just had a baby, and as is the tradition of our community, we helped by giving them one less thing to worry about.
We brought pizza. And what a delight it was to prepare that pizza. I made the dough fresh that day, stewed the sauce from a fine can of tomatoes, crumbled the cheese on top, and seasoned it all with freshly picked basil. It was one of the best pizzas I’ve made. Often, when you work for others, you do your best work.
Sitting in their home, we talked with our friends as they enjoyed the pizza. We laughed. We played with their little child. We were grateful, and so were they.
It is said that it is more blessed to give than receive, but I’m not sure anymore. The recipient gains something of value and beauty. You gain the joy of helping them. And in the exchange, the importance of who gained more becomes irrelevant. It is the coming together of people that matters.
Service strips your world to the barest elements of humanity. The ego fades. Pride moves to the background. In their place, you find human connection. You find satisfaction and meaning.
I reflected on Tolstoy’s words: “Joy can be real only if people look upon their life as a service, and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.” I had just witnessed their truth.
Service, that is what I want to be known for. That is the foundation I wish to rest my work and life upon.
Life as a service
The cornerstone of meaning
Foundations of joy
After bidding farewell to the man on the corner, I continue on my way. Thoughts tumble through my head. Whatever I was thinking of before is gone, replaced by the memory of our encounter.
I remember how I told him, “Sure,” and pulled out my wallet.
I remember the sharpness of the twenty dollar note I picked out. Crisp – it’s perfection broken only by a fold in the middle. Valuable – useful to me and useful to him.
I remember the face of the man as I placed it in his red, plastic cup. Disbelief and gratitude split his expression. Overwhelmed, he muttered a soft thank you and extended his arm, offering a hug of thanks.
I remember our hug. A physical manifestation of the connection.
I remember our conversation, however short it was. He told me about his children, all grown up. He told me about how he was going to see them for the holidays.
I remember our parting, both of us changed by the encounter.
I remember my thoughts on service from earlier in the week.
And I am left a question. What if my entire life – with each story, with each piece of poetry, with each work of art, with each friendship, with each interaction – hinged on serving others on that level? To give gifts of such a magnitude that they leave the other overwhelmed with gratitude. To shatter expectations. To affect another human being. And through it all, to become affected.
I’m still coming to terms with the implications of that question.
PHOTO: Remembering a life of service. Chicago, IL.
PS: My thanks to Sasha Dichter and Julien Smith for challenging the way I think about generosity and art.