When you volunteer to work at the food bank, you probably think to yourself, I’m going to help people and that’s a good thing. I’m going to help people who have hit hard financial times and need a lift in their spirit as well as food in their cupboard.
You imagine the recipients will look upon you as a Mother Teresa-type, grateful to your sweet spirit of volunteerism of handing out turkeys and canned pumpkin and toys for the kids.
A week before Christmas, I showed up on time for my assigned volunteer shift, ready for my Mother Teresa benevolence to begin.
Soon after arrival, I discovered I would be one of the underrated backup people who get no glory. I would not be passing out food at all. Instead, I helped assemble artificial Christmas trees with many of the tree parts missing and ill-fitting stands that caused the trees to lean over as if falling. The next task threw me into a human chain gang. Boxes of 50 lb. turkeys and canned goods, unloaded from the back of a truck, were heaved down a line of volunteers.
I hurled at least 2,000 boxes down the line and built up muscles I didn’t know I had. The next task kicked into gear immediately. Someone brought out a huge box of plastic bags. It was my duty, and the duty of the other volunteers, to pre-open each plastic bag, fluff them, and make them ready for the volunteers who would fill them with food later that evening at the food bank’s Christmas event.
I’m certain you’re aware of the frustration of trying to open a brand new plastic bag. These types of bags wait for you with glee in the produce department at the grocery store. You yank a plastic bag off a roll of bags so you can toss your apples or pears inside it. The bag fights you, refuses to open. You stand next to the organic banana display for an hour trying to get it to open before morphing into the Incredible Hulk and ripping that bag to shreds and smashing a few bananas in the process. One day when Jerry noticed me tearing and hacking at the bag, he worried about the bananas. He sweetly advised, “Lick your fingers and then try to open the bag. It works.” I told him I didn’t want to lick my fingers.
I didn’t want to do it at my food bank shift either.
Other volunteers seemed to open their bag without much hollering or screaming or cursing, so I tried to keep it down as I attempted to open each bag. But soon I gritted my teeth in avoidance of uttering unkind words at the bag. This unpleasant scenario went on bag after bag. I developed a crick in my neck from looking down at bags with intense annoyance. Eventually, I found a rhythm…frustration, annoyance, teeth gritting, ripping, fluffing. I did this one-zillion times until the last plastic bag vacated the box.
I not only felt relief at the sight of the empty box, I felt like celebrating. We did it. The task is completed. Let’s dance. Anyone bring music?
A volunteer announced, “Here’s another box of plastic bags,” and set them on a table.
A man standing beside me hadn’t said a word to me while we had each focused on opening and fluffing plastic bags. Upon learning we had more bags to fluff, he turned to me and said very dryly, “Oh, more bags. That’s good news!”
I got right back into my routine of ripping, gritting, fluffing. After about ten-zillion bags, I noticed a folded crease at the top of each bag. If I pulled on the crease, the bag opened easily. Suddenly, fluffing plastic bags became effortless. I hit my stride. I had suddenly developed a new skill I could use on my resume. Or maybe not. Nevertheless, a skill I now cherished.
I can do this! It’s like suddenly realizing you’re riding a bicycle and your dad has let go of you and now he’s watching you peddle down the street on your own. I’m riding a bike! And…I’m opening a plastic bag with ease!
It occurred to me that practice at anything makes whatever you’re attempting to do get easier. Whether learning to play the piano, speak Chinese, or twirl a baton, practice helps you to master the skill.
Sometimes I want to give up when it gets too hard. I didn’t want to play the trumpet in the fifth grade as my lips hurt and had the puffy-fish look. It didn’t help that my mother ran out of the house with her hands over her ears, each time I practiced at home. So I quit. And today I don’t know how to play the trumpet. Just think of the trumpet serenades people are missing out on because I didn’t want to practice.
I didn’t want to practice fluffing plastic bags either. I started out with a bad attitude. Why are we trying to make it easier for the food bank workers? Can’t they fluff their own bags? Bad attitude, I know. I kept going though waiting for someone else to quit first. Then I could say, “Me too.” But no one quit.
Now I’m glad I stuck with it. The constant repetition forced me to find a better way, a faster way, a less irritating way. And that’s what life is about, finding a better way to live our lives. And practice it every day. And if someone wants to make it easier for us, that’s even better.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta makes it easier for us with her advice on living a better life. Practicing her advice give us a skill to cherish. Here’s to a beautiful beginning for 2015. Here’s to practice!
People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered;
Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives;
Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies;
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you;
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight;
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous;
Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow;
Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough;
Give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.