What We Do and How We Do It

“Can I talk to you?” she asked, this daughter of mine, on an evening after a particularly stressful and exhausting day for me. It was late. I had just plopped myself down on the sofa with a short, mindless article to read. I was hoping to wind down. A busy next day loomed. I was tired.

Thankfully, that time, I rallied.

“Sure,” I said, mustering up a smile, plumping up the sofa pillow next to me and motioning her to come in.

I had caught myself. I’d been tempted to sigh deeply. I had been tempted to say, “Come on. It’s 10:30 at night. Don’t spring anything big on me.” Or, “Can we do this in the morning? I’m tired.” But I didn’t. Thank goodness, because my daughter needed to talk about something important right then. Putting off the conversation would not have been a good idea. When I think of how close I came to appearing put-upon that moment she asked if she could talk to me, I cringe. I would have denied a perfect bonding, learning and teaching moment had I given in to my first inclination. All I can say is it was grace in that moment. And as for now, I’m trying to train myself to make that welcoming disposition a habit.

I remember working in a nursing home many years ago when I was just in high school. I volunteered once a week to paint the elderly ladies’ nails if they so wished. Room by room I would go, with emery boards, some nail-soaking solution and bowls, offering just a few selections of nail polish colors — clear, pink and a bold red. I wanted to make it around to as many ladies as I could.

In the residents’ rooms there would often be photographs of their families, a deceased spouse as a young person, parents of theirs long gone, children who sometimes did and sometimes didn’t visit. Residents would point to these photos and want to talk. I had a job to do and sometimes I felt impatient because the residents missed my point of being there. They talked slowly, or one idea of theirs meandered into a seemingly other unrelated rambling one and I hadn’t even gotten to their nails yet. This was my first real experience of learning to listen with an interested and open ear, which of course, was really more important anyway.

Frequently, a resident would ask me to fetch a medicine bottle from the window sill, or ask for help in calling a nurse, or to be adjusted in their wheelchairs or helped up to standing positions. I couldn’t administer medication, of course, and I wasn’t supposed to move anyone out of a wheelchair, so I would get assistance at the desk. Most of the personnel who worked at the nursing home were friendly and kind, but occasionally workers coming in to “assist” were abrupt or condescending to residents. They seemingly felt put-upon by requests. The workers did the tasks requested of them, but not in a way that was patient and kind. I would watch the elderly faces sink when they were answered curtly or their requests responded to in a condescending way. The older people clearly felt like burdens in those circumstances.

St. John Chrysostom lived in the fourth century, but his advice is as relevant and good now as it was then. He said:

“Helping a person in need is good in itself. But the degree of goodness is hugely affected by the attitude with which it is done. If you show resentment because you are helping the person out of a reluctant sense of duty, then the person may receive your help, but may feel awkward and embarrassed. This is because he will feel beholden to you. If, on the other hand, you help the person in a spirit of joy, then the help will be received joyfully. The person will feel neither demeaned nor humiliated by your help, but rather will feel glad to have caused you pleasure by receiving your help. And joy is the appropriate attitude with which to help others, because acts of generosity are a source of blessing to the giver as well as the receiver. Indeed, the receiver may only derive a material blessing, but the giver derives a spiritual blessing. If you give gladly, even if it is only a small thing, it will seem like a fortune. If you give resentfully, even if it is substantial, it will seem like a pittance.”

These words challenge me a lot, as I am smack in the middle of raising nine kids. Obviously, children living in the house have immediate and varied needs, and legitimate requests, that require a positive attitude and deftness in shifting from thought to thought and to decision-making. But grown-up kids also offer opportunity as a mom to grow in virtue. While four of my children are totally up and out of the nest, for example, that doesn’t mean someone doesn’t call and need a listening ear, or some information or advice at a moment’s notice. With parents, it’s not just scheduling, cleaning, housework and driving that are the biggest challenges. We can plan for those things. Mostly, it’s the little interruptions that give us the most opportunity to do, as Mother Teresa suggested, “small things with great love” and a happy spirit.

Practice makes habits, and good habits are hard and a lot of work. But I think this habit of learning not just to do good, but do good with love, is worth the work and practice it takes. I often tell my children if they can’t respond to one another with kindness in conversations that come up in normal, active family life, which have multiple personalities, desires and senses of humor, that they should remove themselves from the room and pull themselves together. Maybe go to the bathroom, I say, and splash cold water on their faces, take a deep breath and emerge only when they’ve obtained perspective and patience. Actually, that’s not a bad thing for us all to practice. We should all get used to serving one another willfully, spontaneously and joyfully .

The bottom line is this: In dealing with our spouses, children, neighbors, distant family, in-laws and friends, it is a good policy to remember that it’s not just what we do, but how we do it.

Theresa Thomas is wife to David and mother of nine who lives in northern Indiana farm country. She is co-author of Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories from Everyday Families, a family columnist atToday's Catholic News and regularly contributes to Integrated Catholic Life.

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