Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The privilege of helping friends

Monday evening after dinner, I browned some stew meat and onions in the crock pot, added peas, barley, potatoes, red wine, and spices. All night, the aroma of beef stew filled the house. In the morning, I poured the hot mixture into a foil pan and brought it to a friend’s house for the reception she was hosting following her mother’s memorial service.

Later in the morning, I worked on publicity materials for another friend who is about to open a gallery, and then after lunch I drove one of Tim’s friends to his orthodontist appointment because his mother was running late.

Yesterday may have had elements of "Be careful what you wish for," but I have to concede that this is precisely the kind of life I used to dream of having: one filled with friends. When we lived in a much larger town and I was working full-time, I didn’t have local friends. I waved to neighbors as we passed on the street, but no one ever asked me to help them with cooking or driving or publicity, and I never offered. I didn’t know anyone well enough.

Yesterday was a little busier than usual, but for the most part, it was a fairly typical day. A year ago, I was feeling overwhelmed with volunteer commitments and had to admit to myself that the functions I’d offered to fulfill didn’t feel fulfilling at all, so as guilty as it made me feel, I cut back on various institutional volunteering options.

It wasn’t that I was specifically thinking I’d redirect that same energy to personal friends, but that’s how it worked out. Since cutting back on formal volunteer work, I’ve found it so much easier to be generous with my time. I didn’t even realize how concrete a difference it was until I read something I wrote in a journal about a year ago: “Maybe once I give up some of these responsibilities that I’m finding so onerous, I’ll enjoy seeing people again rather than finding it a burden every time someone drops by.”

I’d forgotten how starkly I’d come to resent the very same people I enjoy most, simply because I’d taken on too much.

And although it’s hard to objectively defend the choice to make stew for a friend’s memorial service rather than serve food at a soup kitchen, it seems to be the more enriching choice for me right now. I’m not sure which is ultimately more important: to be a good citizen or a good friend. I can’t say with certainty that I’m doing the right thing by letting myself focus on personal connections instead of the greater good.

But I end the day feeling grateful for the presence of friends and grateful for the opportunities to help them out, knowing they have done and will again do the same for me when the circumstances require it. It’s not necessarily a rational choice. But it’s one that feels instinctively right. And sometimes, that’s the best you have to go on.

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