Once when I was 8 or 9, shopping at the neighborhood grocery
with my mother, I was suddenly seized by a strong larcenous urge
to swipe a five-cent tube of Tom’s salted peanuts.
After impulsively stuffing the little bag deep down in my shorts
pocket, I was instantly gripped by guilt and panic and consumed
by the desire to replay the past few crime-laden moments and emerge
peanut-less into the sunshine of childish innocence. Thus I was
almost relieved when Sue, the trusty and no-nonsense checkout clerk,
called me sternly to her judgment counter, Mother at my side. Swirling
amid the shame of doing wrong in front of a pair of respected adult
witnesses were Sue’s concluding words as she chastised me:
“What if everyone did that?”
I wish I could claim with all true honor that I never again strayed
from the rosy path of righteousness; what I can say with honesty
is that I have heard the echo many times of Sue’s gentle and
probing question: “What if everyone did that?” It is
a question with universal application: littering, petty white collar
crime, bursts of road rage, the ringing of cell phones in theaters.
Years passed. I blew out birthday candles in ever-increasing numbers,
went to college to learn how much I didn’t know (on the heels
of thinking I knew most everything when I was a teenager), got married,
had children, then spent the next decade trying to remember why
I ever thought I knew anything at all. When the children were little
and I was spending time volunteering in pre-school, elementary and
beyond, Sue’s question from my childhood again popped into
my head, but this time the flip side landed up. Why not apply it
to doing good? Making brownies for the bake sale, painting a wall
in the kindergarten room, participating in a PTA project, tutoring
inner-city primary students, taking groceries to a hungry family––what
if everyone did that?
More years sped by. My children gradually assumed the behavior patterns
and common characteristics of human beings; my marriage proved a
happy place to be; my job was (and still is) a joy. But life has
a habit of throwing the bad in with the good, and I found myself
in a hellish personal place where my daddy was dead and my mother
had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I moved her from Knoxville
(the scene of my childhood mini-crime spree) to Budd Terrace at
Wesley Woods, where she died seven months later in the heartless
grasp of increasing dementia, taken quickly by lung cancer. She
received excellent care from the skilled and patient staff members
and volunteers at Budd Terrace, and from me.
As I went to see Mother every day, it was sad to see residents who
had no visitors. I included them in my conversations with Mother.
One lady wanted to go home with me every evening. (She didn’t
know I had teenagers.)
After Mother died, I had the idea that I wanted to return to Budd
Terrace and visit with residents on the Alzheimer’s floor,
but it was a long time before I could bring myself to go back. The
prospect loomed before me with prohibitive sadness. Finally I ventured
over to Wesley Woods and started spending time each week with a
variety of sometimes pleasant, often cantankerous, always dear,
elderly folks who wander in a cognitive wilderness.
Everyone I speak to is glad to see me every week, and, as far as
they know, each of my visits is the first. One lady is frequently
concerned about dinner, certain that she chairs the committee in
charge of the arrangements. I tell her she’s done a wonderful
job and that everything is in place. Another tells me every week
that her mother raised five little girls and goes through a litany
of numbers––biscuits baked, dresses ironed, chores accomplished.
I’m duly and newly impressed with these statistics every time.
Some people don’t talk at all. One woman who rarely spoke
or responded to conversation suddenly belted out every word of a
dozen old standards as she watched a sing-along video. She has since
died. A gentleman who hadn’t said a word during my hour-long
visit looked directly at me at long last and asked in a challenging
tone, “Exactly what is your function here?” When I told
him I was a volunteer, he responded that, by golly, he’d like
to volunteer some things that were wrong with that place.
I go after work once a week, and sometimes a task or phone call
at the office delays my arrival enough that I miss out on helping
with the supper trays. The staff members are familiar enough with
me that one supervising nurse fusses at me only half-jokingly when
I’m late (“Where have you been?”), to which I
respond that I suppose she can dock my pay.
I’ve learned a basic life lesson in a dramatic way from these
residents: All we have is this moment, right now, to make the most
of, to be with others, to enjoy life.
After a while I began to expand my range of visitation, talking
with residents on other floors at Budd Terrace who have sharp minds
but suffer physical challenges, several of whom appear in the EmoryGives
video. From these friends, I learn about patience, wisdom gained,
the values of faith and humor. I appreciate their spending time
with me, and I always thank them before I leave. My childhood was
filled with elderly relatives, all of whom are gone now, and I’m
grateful to have these folks in my life.
And so the question comes to me once again in considering my visits
to Budd Terrace: What if everyone did that? It arises again
when I think about the hour I spend each week as a mentor to a struggling
student in a City of Atlanta elementary school. The query can be
applied as well to my customary practice of giving through payroll
deduction at Emory to charitable causes, originally through the
United Way, recently expanded to EmoryGives. What if everyone did
Hours given don’t need to be burdensome, nor does the amount
of money donated need to be impressive. With a gentle shove of motivation
from a source close to one’s heart, anybody can find a worthwhile
direction for giving time and resources, no matter the amount. Within
the impressive roster of charitable causes under the EmoryGives
umbrella, everyone at the University can find a way that is personally
appealing to help make the world safer, smarter, friendlier or cleaner.
Visit someone who’s lonely; tutor someone who’s behind;
laugh with someone who’s sad. Plant a tree; fix a meal; read
aloud; give of yourself. Share your heart. Find an hour some evening,
an occasional Saturday morning, or part of a Sunday afternoon. You’ll
be glad to meet others who help, and blessed to know the people
Try donating to charitable funds the monetary equivalent of three
mocha lattés per week, or a weekly evening movie ticket with
popcorn and Coke, or lunch once a week at a moderately priced restaurant,
and you’ll find yourself giving upwards of $500 a year.
I’m no saint, and, despite the name of the giving category
in which I find myself, goodness knows I’m no angel. But I
give hours here and dollars there for three reasons, one pragmatic,
one philanthropic and one selfish. First, it needs to be done––
that’s pragmatic. Second, acts of kindness and dollars of
generosity truly help people in need––that’s philanthropic.
And the selfish reason? It makes me feel good to do good.
What if everyone did that?