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August 20, 2019

Paper Towels

Something subtle but very significant just happened, and I am rushing to put it down before I lose its thread.
4 min read

Something subtle but very significant just happened, and I am rushing to put it down before I lose its thread. (Some of life’s most important lessons emerge like that­—in an instant—and it’s a challenge to preserve them for further reflection). I was in the middle of pulling an item from the refrigerator when I accidentally dislodged a jar of salsa. Down it went, shattering on my kitchen tiles, spraying red tomato like paint on a Pollock canvas.

I stared at the salsa in dismay, not only because the jar had been full (what a waste). Not only because the floor had just been mopped a couple hours before (another waste). But mainly because I knew that the salsa was interspersed with shards that could prove painful to shoeless feet, primarily those of my son, who loves to run barefoot around the house. In a split second I saw myself trying to pull glass from his skin, him crying and struggling in distress and incomprehension. How would I explain what I was doing? Get him to cooperate?  Thus the awful film reel rolled in my head.

Grabbing a roll of paper towels, I bent down and began mopping up. I worked in a half-conscious state. Part of me was coping with the situation at hand while another part of me braced for the impact I imagined would befall my child and me. Before I quite realized what was happening, I found the fingertips of one hand—my dominant hand, no less—dipping into a mound of salsa, quite bare of any protective covering. Instantly, I snapped awake and rinsed off my fingers in the sink. “What was I thinking?” I asked myself with a shudder, realizing how close I had come to real injury. Then I grasped that I had been trying to save on paper towels as I picked up the mess. Not use up the whole roll, which probably cost all of a buck, if that.

I am chilled to the bone as I look at the words I’ve just written. Even as I envisioned taking care of my son in a future scenario, I risked not taking care of myself in the present. One might say I was simply being absent-minded, but I think there’s more to it than that. Why the huge disparity between what I was willing to do for my son (an ER trip if necessary) and what I was willing to do for myself? Wasn’t I worth a stupid dollar?

I may never have the definitive answer for those questions, but I do have a strong suspicion that people who are responsible for taking care of everyone else in their lives are the most prone to neglecting themselves. Drastically. And the irony is that should they NOT snap out of their self-destructive patterns and actually hurt themselves, those for whom they sacrifice will definitely suffer.  A real lose-lose situation if ever there was one.

Maybe some of you are thinking about someone you admire who was very spartan with themselves. A parent, maybe, or a teacher or some other selfless leader (ex., Mother Theresa) who allowed themselves little so others could have more. Or maybe Jesus is your role model, and you note that he traveled about in poverty until he ultimately died for his message. Can’t top that for self-sacrifice.

How do you argue which such altruistic examples?

I don’t. What I do try to do is look at the breadth of their giving as well as its depth.

Every giver I admire has been in it for the long haul. They are not interested in band-aids, but in daily bread, the kind that shows up on the plate as consistently as the sun rises. They usually have some regimen for self-care, somewhere they plug in to regenerate when their fuel tank runs low. Or they have surrounded themselves with trusted persons who will tell them when it’s time to take a break and who will facilitate their restoration, physical and emotional.

Furthermore, wise givers seem to know who they are, at heart. They know their limitations, can admit when they are tired or fed up. They know what helps them recover, be it physical activity, sleep or a splurge on a massage, book, or new outfit. They recognize impatience with others or feeling overwhelmed and depressed as signs of burnout. They do not ignore these signs but take a bow and get off the stage for awhile. In short, they allow time for themselves because they know they are worth it, and that the ones they love need someone who is well and whole to serve them.

I once saw a religious documentary featuring a Hindu saint in India who ministers to the suffering by hugging them. She has been dubbed “Amma” or “mother” for the droves she comforts by putting her arms around them, one by one. Besides immediately wanting to experience her embrace, I was drawn to the fact that this mom to the multitudes was filmed tending a garden during a private moment to herself. Apparently, she likes helping green things grow, and makes time for this activity despite her grueling schedule.

Biblical writings record Jesus allowing himself to be anointed with perfume despite its staggering cost. Notably, he is reclining at a table as a dinner guest when this happens, and defends the woman who performs the extravagance. When she is criticized for wasting money that could have been diverted to the poor, Jesus says, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” (Matt 26:11) Meaning: I am worth this act of kindness, as much as the needy are due their share.

My advice? Use the whole roll of towels as your day unfolds. It’ll feel like a splurge, but it isn’t. Make time for your garden in the midst of all that hugging. Afford yourself the dignity you deserve as a human being—one upon whom others depend. If you’re not quite ready to take care of yourself for your own sake, then do so for those who need you for the long haul. Do it for the cause or purpose you believe in with all your being, because its value exceeds calculation.

I hope that in time, the practice of self-care will not only become second nature, but will afford you a sense of self-worth that you wouldn’t have otherwise. We cannot help but develop esteem for those we serve, including ourselves.

And remember, start small. Budget a buck. You won’t regret it.