In helping others, we are always helping ourselves. And we will be most effective in helping otherw when we focus first on being healthy ourselves.
I think by both nature and nurture, I always felt good about giving.
That's not to say I haven't done a lot of taking, as I most certainly have. I strive to show gratitude for all I've been given but it always seems I fall short.
My first lesson in giving was delivered over time by my little sister who had Down Syndrome. It's clear when you are with someone who is so different in public that many people cannot see past the surface of another human being. Having Jane in my life made me strive to see all people as valuable. She was certainly valuable to me as a sister, friend and as my teacher.
Patience is required of a giver. Being in Jane's presence also taught me - many times the hard way - I am not patient by nature; to be present and forgiving of myself and others. I struggled at times with Jane and for that matter with all my brothers and sisters. It's not easy to socialize in a family of 12, each with their own personality strengths and flaws.
I learned from my parents that giving well requires accommodation. The milk man, the school janitor, the priests, the cleaning lady and our relatives were all equal and welcomed in our already crowded and busy home - for an hour, a day or even months or years. Among those who stayed a long time were an Uncle who was dying, an aging Uncle who was unwanted by his family and our cleaning lady who lost her home to a fire.
Looking back, it's a challenge for me to fathom welcoming someone into my home who doesn't know when they are leaving.
Mom and Dad could have justifiably said, "We have enough on our plates."
They did not.
Being quiet about giving is something I also learned from Mom and Dad and therefore has become an aspiration for me. (Again here, it's what I wish to become, not always how I am.)
Mom would say, "If you can't give with a free hand, don't bother," and Dad, a physician, never sent a second bill to his patients. It was only recently I learned that he would tell his administrator, "If they couldn't pay the first notice, they must not be able to afford it."
I remember getting a hint of Dad's quiet giving one Christmas when I noticed how many people stopped by during the season to deliver canned goods or fix something or plow our driveway. One time, I asked my Mom why everyone seems so nice to Dad and she replied, "These are their ways to pay him back."
When I was about 19, I got the most important lesson for giving I ever received. That is, that giving is never "giver and receiver." Instead it is always a two-way street.
I visited a woman named Laurie Rose and her family for Sunday dinner. Laurie was divorced and struggling in a lot of ways at the time. At her home, I was surprised to find in addition to her kids and boyfriend a young disabled man from a local foster home. We all had a fun time and Laurie invited me to stay until she returned from taking the young man back to the home. When she returned, I asked, "What was that all about?" She said, "Oh, Jimmy spends every Sunday with us."
I said, "You are so kind: He is so lucky."
Without batting an eye, she responded, "Maybe, but I don't do it for him: I do it for me. You see, it makes me feel real joy to have Jimmy around."
My second greatest adult lesson came to me during the 20 years or so I volunteered in church and non-profit groups. I call this the "fix yourself first" lesson.
I recall with some embarrassment that I went to many of these meeting in a "work" frame of mind. That is, I went driven, anxious and all-about-the-goal.
And it's with regret I remember how many people and causes I must have hurt. I found myself engaging in peace-giving charity with my battle-engaging personality.
And I wasn't the only one bringing my dirty laundry to the table.
That leads to my final lesson - that of giving gladly - which was learned from my late mentor Norm Smith.
He'd say, "Timmy, it's not enough to give: We must give gladly."
Through Norm, I've been able to further let go of my occasionally aggressive and/or pious behavior.
We've all worked on projects that the work got done but it didn't seem much fun.
The seminal moment of learning this lesson from Norm was the night I picked him up at the rectory (he was a Catholic priest) to go to a particularly difficult meeting with a committee that was split about what direction we were heading. In fact, many were angry.
Norm answered the door in a clown suit. He had the red wig and nose, the hat and shoes; the whole nine yards.
I said, "Norm, I don't know what you're doing but we gotta go man, hurry up and get dressed." Smiling, he went right past me and headed for the car as I called after him, "You're going to the meeting like that?"
He said, "Heck, yea, it could get rough down there tonight!"
I laughed all the way downtown and of course so did everyone else. It took the edge off what would otherwise have been a very difficult situation.
I've had many more teachers in this path of learning to give well. Perhaps I'll write more later on this topic. But it seems Thanksgiving is a good time to remember these, the most enduring things I've learned:
Give without judgment, quietly and freely, remembering that you are both recipient and giver.
Get yourself straight before you "help" others.