LEAVING PEOPLE BEHIND (part 3)

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due,
When it is in your power to do it.
Do not say to your neighbor—"go and come again,
Tomorrow I will give it"—when you have it with you.
Proverbs 3:27, 28

Part One: A Trumpet Blast From My Heart

A friend calls you, says he is lonely, and he'd like to meet you for a coffee. Your grandmother writes you a letter and wants you to reply. A neighbor asks you to mow his lawn because he sprained his ankle.

Of course we "want" to be kind and helpful. But we have our own lawns to mow, hundreds of emails to go through, and five other friends who are pulling at us in varied ways. And so we make people wait as the roar of human need has us reaching for our headphones and other escape routes. And the more we escape, the more things pile up and the more things pile up, the more we want to escape. A friend calls and we let it go to voice mail. Eventually, we resent the ringing of the phone. Eventually, we turn off the phone.

It is so hard to think and act with clarity when it comes to others. What do we owe people? What do we owe ourselves? Who gets our time, our attention, our letters, our money, our passion? What is in our power? Can't our neighbor hire a teenager to mow his lawn?

And who really wants to consciously address such complex realities and hard questions? Isn't it so much easier to tune out, until some emergency blares through our headphones and we reconnect for a few days with some of the other people mourning the passing of our grandmother?

Wow! Where did that come from? Was that a low blow, a guilt-inducing reminder from superego land, and an unfair judgment that misses life's complexities and endless demands? Or is it the essential reminder we constantly need—that the people calling out to us will not call forever and that one day we may miss our grandmother more than our emails?

Alas, we all have to leave people behind and we cannot fill every need. It is a regrettable, very necessary and sad reality, this leaving of people, these limits, but our crucial emphasis should be the stunningly rare and sane awareness that we really need one another. You matter more than you know to your tribe—whatever your tribe may be—and the tribe matters more to you than you know. And so wake up to who matters to you and wake up some more to who matters to you and name them, name them, name them—and then shout their names to yourself in great clarity and great gratitude, shout it out now, shout it out at the top of your voice so that the fog rolls away and love's clarity floods your soul—and then it will always be your joyous delight and glorious privilege to write to your grandmother who rocked you all night, sip a coffee with your lonely friend who makes you less lonely, and mow the lawn for Joe who watched your kids the night you got unexpected tickets to a Springsteen concert.

Part Two: A Few Flute Notes

The trumpet blast is a call to profound and joyous love, to do things for people because we love them and see their need. It is not an invitation to write to your grandmother out of dusty guilt, sad duty, or the fanciful illusion and crushing burden that you are everybody's Messiah.

It concerns a dear grandmother, a loyal friend, and a helpful neighbor. I did not forget that there are some grandmothers who deserve no letter, some friends better left forgotten, and that we need a big fence between ourselves and some neighbors.

Here's what Shalom Auslander had written on his son's first birthday cake:

Happy birthday, from Mommy, Daddy, the dogs, and no one else in our families because they are bitter miseries who'd rather drag us into the morass of their bleak, tragic lives than share for a moment in our joy. And many more.

He had friends over to celebrate his son's birthday.

(Thanks to Arlin Roy for passing on this story.)

And yes, I do not forget that we need to turn off our phones—in order to dream, sleep, exercise, create and take care of our own life's business. It would be interesting to see Solomon's take on the avalanche of human need that tugs at our heartstrings and wallets—but I'm sure he would agree that part of our personal power is the hard-won ability to function well, to sort through the trivial and keep with the important, to be organized enough to find a pen and some nice paper and write to our grandmother.

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