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Old Enough

Old Enough

There is a little story that Ram Dass once told about caring for his aged father. Every morning, his father, a man who apparently was never Not applicablely demonstrative in his affection would pat Ram Dass on the back as he bent to help him put on his socks, and Ram Dass could feel his heart "just sing." And it brings to mind the quote by Khalil Gibran: "I slept and dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and saw that life is all service. I served and saw that service is joy."

Sometimes, service is portrayed as an exercise in martyrdom, to willingly immerse ourselves in the often thankless work that can be undignified, unsafe, unjust, or uninviting. But I think this perspective stems from the idea of separateness, that each person needs to take care of himself (or at most, his kind). Service is taking care of that which one sees as separate from himself. And service is especially distasteful when he thinks other people should be taking care of themselves instead of relying on someone else.

I encountered this so often from parenting guides that look to instill a consistent sense of self sufficiency and responsibility in children:

  • Children need to pick up their own toys.
  • Children need to sleep on their own.
  • Children need dress and toilet themselves.

Independence is a natural progression of life, but in our focus on teaching and training for independence, do we train ourselves to forget about interdependence as a universal truth? Does it set us up for heartache later when we lose our independence little by little with age, and handicap our ability to gracefully surrender ourselves to time?

When my son turned three, he was told he was responsible for picking up his toys at the end of the day. Of course, like most children, he balked. His father and I ended up punishing him by taking away any toys he left out for a week. Tears and emotions pitted against stern, logical reasoning every night. And every night was a battle. Every night we went to bed dissatisfied with each other. With maturity, he grew to pick up most of his toys, but he always did it with bitterness, and what's more is that he began flipping the script on me.

If I asked him to fetch something or help with a simple task, he would often refuse, saying it was "my stuff and my responsibility." I realized that by emphasizing hard and fast boundaries between his and mine, I had undermined my hope of having our home be a place of cooperation and togetherness. And so I decided we needed to reset. There are lots of things that need to be done in the house, and we can all take the lead on certain parts of it depending on who has the best understanding about them and the ability to take care of them.

For my son, it is invariably his toys, craft supplies, and school things. But that doesn't mean I full on refuse to help in any way. If he's picked up 90% of the items, and I notice a few stray toys here and there, I either gently point them out if I'm busy, or if I'm not, I pick them up myself. Alternately, my son can start a load in the washing machine, folds everyone's socks, takes dirty dishes to the sink, and vacuums the crumbs under the table. It's not everyday, but he only doesn't complain as much when we ask him to participate in these household tasks.

Sometimes it's not whether someone can do something for himself or not. Service doesn't necessarily exist because there's a need. Sometimes, service exists because performing it brings us closer to each other in a way that independence can't. Just as Jesus washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:4); just as seniors in Japan volunteered to expose themselves to nuclear radiation when performing the necessary cleanup in sites affected by the Fukushima nuclear disaster; just as a mother drapes a veil over her daughter's head on her wedding day, they don't have to do it. The disciples were fully capable of washing their own feet. Younger and more able-bodied relief workers could have performed the necessary detoxification. A bride can drape her veil on her own. But, that isn't the point, is it?

The ritual act of service can be a beautiful thing. I can fix my own hair, but there is something soothing and special about someone else, my son or my mom, taking a brush and gently running it through my hair in in companionable silence. It's a moment of honest intimacy in simply being with each other, and brings to mind Bob Dylan's wish for us all in his song, "Forever Young," "May you always do for others, and have others do for you."

I've come to accept that it's a blessing to be able to do both.

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