Habits of Good

My cousins Matt and Austin grew up in New Hampshire playing hockey incessantly, or at least that’s how it seemed to me. Every time I visited, one or both of them had to be at practice at 5 in the morning or some other crazy time, and the next day the same thing. I wondered if they were training for the Olympics. But no. When I asked my aunt about all the practices, she simply said, “If they are busy doing something fun, and it makes them tired, they won’t have time or energy for getting into trouble.”

This reminds me of CJ, the washroom attendant I admire so, who occupied his time so fully with doing his job and so consistently with being the nicest guy you’d ever want to meet, that he didn’t have time to complain.

The holiday season that’s fast approaching will, as usual, cause people fill their time with lots of fun activities and lots of good works, and on the surface this seems above reproach. We will not only be buying presents for our loved ones and going to special parties and dinners, we will also be singing carols at nursing homes, giving turkeys to the needy, deciding what to do about the Salvation Army Santas collecting on the street corners — pass them by altogether, give a few dollars to each one, tell the next one you gave to the last one?

When we were homeschooling for all those years, we were not the homestead-on-the-mountaintop sort. It was important to me that my kids develop a sense of community. Besides attending local theater, watching local crafters in their studios do their glassblowing or basketweaving or woodworking, and being part of Little League and other sports, we  made it our business to serve and interact with people in other situations.  Together we prepared and delivered meals for the emergency shelter, attended events that included a wide swath of culture and characters, and visited the elderly. I didn’t want my children to think that everyone lived the same way and I didn’t want them to get the idea that the world revolved around them.

One year in November I called a local nursing home to set up a time for our little coop group of kids to come in December to visit the residents and maybe sing some Christmas songs. The woman who answered the phone made me think about the frenzied few weeks of the holidays — and giving in general — in a different light.

She graciously said, “Your offer to come is much appreciated, but frankly we are inundated at this time of year. When January comes, the residents can feel like everyone did their good deeds and can now forget about them for another year. Really, the better thing for you to do is come at random times when they don’t expect anyone to be thinking about them. That’s what really makes them smile.”

Spread out the good, she was saying, and it will do more good than if a lot of good is crammed in all together. Too much good all at once can be counterproductive, and maintaining a balance is healthier for many reasons. My aunt didn’t send her boys to a hockey camp for a week or two and then leave them to their own devices for the rest of the year. CJ doesn’t speak kindly some of the time. Both of them developed what could be called Habits of Good

When I see the word “habit,” I think of nuns. What they wear is called a habit. They wear it every day. The woman on the phone at the nursing home was suggesting the same for us — that visiting the residents would be not a sometimes-thing, but instead, a habit, sure and steady. For us, her suggestion turned into a relationship with one individual who ended up spending his last days on earth at our home. We became his family.

Time is short. We all know that. We all know that something could happen later today that utterly changes our world. Therefore it’s a good question: In the time we have each day, do we wisely allocate time for ourselves, time for others, time for good? Might we want to rethink how we divvy up our days, perhaps shift our energy to something that matters more, consider developing some habits of good? 

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