Tuesday, January 10, 2012

No, No, After You...

If it's Saturday night, chances are Jack and his friend Nathan are hunkered down between the sofa cushions intently killing alien grunts in the latest XBox Halo release. The boys happily play for hours. After defeating the aliens, they will produce their own digital drama with Jack's iTouch or watch videos on YouTube for tips on how to win at Pokemon. I like listening to the boys talk as they play. They yell at the screen or shout encouragement to each other, sometimes cursing when they fail to take down an evil alien. Boys will be boys.
   These sleepovers also afford time to retreat to my bedroom, pile my bed with books and snuggle in for an evening of reading and writing. But more often than not, just as I'm comfortable and wrapping my head around a passage on patience by Shantideva the cry goes up, "M-O-M! Can we have a snack?!" And it's good-bye Buddhist philosophy, hello Rice Krispy Treats.
   As an only child, Jack is spoiled. I try to instill a sense of independence in him at every opportunity (as in "Get your own darn snack!") but it's hard not to lavish attention on my one and only child. Sleep-overs give Jack a chance to think of someone else's needs for a change.
   When I was a kid, my mother taught me that I should always think of my guest first. If I had my friend Krista over for a playdate, she received the first graham cracker and was given the first glass of grape juice. When we played, I was told to let her pick between Monopoly and Sorry, or give her first dibs on Barbies and Barbie accessories. No matter that when I went to to Krista's house she always took the newest Malibu Barbie with posable arms and legs and the best-looking Ken, when she was a guest at my house, I was expected to defer to her.
   Even if my mother's enforced hospitality seemed unfair when I was young, I grew to appreciate the practice of providing others what I myself would want, aka The Golden Rule. Now I'm trying to pass this policy along to Jack.
   Walking downstairs to the mayhem that was once my tidy living room, Jack's head appears from beneath a large sofa cushion that the boys have made their bunker in their own version of Halo. But apparently hunting down and defeating aliens is thirsty work.
    "Mom!" he says. "Can I have a Coke?"
    "Try that again," I say.
     "Mom, can I p-lease have a Coke?"
     "What does Nathan want?" I ask.
     "Hey Nathan do ya want a Coke?" Jack asks.
     "Yeah sure," says Nathan.
   When I ask Jack to accompany me to the kitchen, a groan goes up from beneath the sofa cushions.
   "What about Nathan?" he whines. "Doesn't he have to help too?"
    "Nathan is our guest," I remind him.
    And so it goes. Jack is an empathetic kid, but he is also used to getting his needs met right away, without deference to anyone. After I pour the drinks, I ask Jack to serve his friend first. Jack examines the two glasses and selects the one that has slightly less to deliver to Nathan. I let it go, not wanting to embarrass him in front of his friend, but I make a mental note to talk to Jack about it later. At present, I have Rice Krispy Treats to make.
   "Mom!" Jack says. "Nathan says he'd like some Fritos!"
    "Sure thing," I say.
   I'm proud of my son until I overhear him asking, "You like Fritos, don't you?" How quickly this child has learned to work the system.
    I retrieve a bowl from my cabinet. It's a piece of my Mom's "good china," which she gave me before she died. Since rejoining my single life, I've used this fancy, gold-rimmed, floral china as my everyday dishes. In fact, they are the only dishes I own. When Jack has his pals over, I don't haul out the plastic plates, because I don't have any. If and when these dishes break, so be it. I believe in using the possessions I acquire for their intended purpose, or what's the point.
   Growing up, we rarely used the good china, but Mom did bring out the "good everyday" dishes on the occasions the family gathered for birthdays or Thanksgiving. This set was also a wedding gift, but as four children arrived over the years, it was promoted to special occasions. A set of pink, hard plastic Melmac became the place setting de jour. The chips and cracks in the plates and saucers and the handle glued-on to one of the coffee cups proved that the "good everyday" dishes had indeed once been used everyday. But on those good-everyday-dish occasions, when it came time to set the table, Mom would always say, "Put the broken dish at my place."
   And this is how our Mother doled out life, taking the second-best, the well-worn, the most diminutive option, giving her husband, her children, her guests the better, more sound pieces. In many ways, Mom often deferred her own pleasure for others. I can now appreciate her sacrifices. It's a selfless act to always give others the best of what you have and accept second-best. Certainly the lesson of demonstrating consideration of others is one that Jack needs to learn, and I will continue to remind him to serve his guests first. That's just common courtesy.
   But lately I see that my own compulsive desire to sacrifice is not always the best practice. In my efforts to show my love for others, I've often taken the lesser portion of attention, focused on their problems to the exclusion of my own, and given away my time to those who had little to give in return. Were my acts of selfless love, truly selfless? Or did I hope to gain recognition—or even love—in return for my sacrifice and generosity? If the latter, who is to blame? No one but myself.
   My mother's acceptance of the broken, less than desirable, make-due, second-best option was the hallmark of a good hostess, but for me, there has been no virtue in giving away the better parts of myself. My guests—like Jack's—will always be well attended, but never again at the expense of my soul.


  1. Great words, my friend. That makes me miss my mother.

  2. A 'giver' who is willing to give everything with all his heart is indeed a good giver, but the one on the other side, the 'beneficiary' is only living up to his giver if he is too modest to take or to expect the giver to give everything, because if one beneficiary takes all, there is nothing left for others or for the giver himself.
    So one should never ever take or expect everything from a giver, no matter how much this giver offers everything and no matter how big the affliction of the beneficiary is.

    Sounds pretty elevated, I know ;-) but these declamatory words were the best ones that came to my mind after reading this blog entry.
    And I just simply believe in this, if what I wanted to say came out right.
    It's not easy to live up to this ideal, but we (includes myself, too, of course) should at least sincerely give it a shot.

  3. Thanks Chris!

    And wow, Thomas thanks for your comment. Yes, I think you are onto something there. It is best if both giver and beneficiary are self-aware and compassionate enough to realize this dynamic. A neat trick indeed!