Two years ago I wrote about how becoming a parent had made me slack off in my commitments to people and causes outside our immediate family (you may remember that post as the story of returning a lost phone to a man with no shirt and a big tattoo). I gave two reasons for this. One, I was busier, and more willing to take shortcuts when it came to civically minded activities like recycling. Two, Jay, Wally, and Caroline come first, which means to some extent, everyone else comes second.
Two years later, I’m ready to revise that view.
On a recent Saturday morning a friend dropped her two-year-old daughter off at our house so she could take her older daughter to music lessons. The following Monday night we had a friend and his three kids over for dinner during a week in which his wife was out of town. On another Saturday, Caroline took two sisters from James’s class to a birthday party so that their father, who has a newborn, could get a break.
A couple things have stood out to me about these experiences.
First, and most importantly, each action did genuinely make someone else’s life better. During stretches when Caroline is out of town, I know just how grateful I am when someone hosts the boys and me for dinner. When we offered to watch the two-year-old while her sister had music lessons, their mom’s relief was palpable. Often it’s hard to know if your efforts to improve the world really make a difference. Here, on a very small scale, there was no doubt about the effect.
Second, each of these actions was pretty easy to do. On most Saturday mornings we’re hanging around the house, and adding another two-year-old to the mix—especially one Wally likes to play with—isn’t all that hard. We cook dinner just about every night, and it’s easy to turn pasta with blue cheese and grapes for four into baked manicotti for eight. Plus, like us, our friends have young kids and were happy to eat dinner at 5:30pm.
We all want to do things that help other people, yet it’s often hard to figure out how to act on that feeling. About a year ago I read an article on the “pay it forward” phenomenon at drive-through restaurants, in which people spontaneously decide to pay for the order of the person behind them in line. The article noted that at a Chick-fil-A in Houston, 67 people in a row had done this for complete strangers. When I mentioned this to Caroline, she said there’s this pent up desire in America to help others, and so when something like “pay it forward” comes along, people jump at it.
If there is this pent up desire—and I agree with Caroline that there is—it’s because the possibility for generous action comes up more in some circumstances than others. One of the very best things about being a part of a church is that it provides many opportunities to do nice things for other people, both as community service and for the other members of the congregation. To take another example, I think of Caroline’s parents, who are active in their co-op building. Their membership in that community sets the stage to perform and receive generosity: people in the building can feed each other’s pets, or lend each other their empty apartments during the holidays.
Participation in a community facilitates generosity (which probably means that a pent up desire to act generously goes hand-in-hand with a lack of community). When you know people, you know when they could use some help, and they have the ability to ask you for help when they need it. Membership in a community also means, by definition, that you share something in common, and when you share something in common, you’re more likely to be able to provide what someone else needs. Taking care of a two-year-old is a tallish order if you don’t have any kids; it’s pretty easy if you already have a playroom full of toys and little kids of your own.
We often get the image of the beleaguered parent who can barely get out of the house in the morning, let alone swing a shift at the soup kitchen. But there’s more than one way to do good things for other people. Two years later I’ve changed my tune: Raising Jay and Wally, and belonging to a community of parents, actually creates the possibility for far more generosity than it destroys.