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Wednesday, January 6, 2010: Spiritual Ethics of Shoveling

        There is a spiritual mindset for helping others without expectation of acknowledgement. When I chide myself for expecting an occasional thank-you after I’ve gone out of my way, Randy reminds me that humans have evolved to expect fair play. When we ourselves are late but make an effort to let someone else into traffic and the driver never gives a hand signal of acknowledgement, when we hold open a door for the person behind us and a dozen people barge through as if we have nothing else to do than hold the door for impatient shoppers, my husband feels it’s natural to end up irritated. I want to silence that part of me that waits for a ‘thank you.’ I want to continue the feeling of goodwill despite the response (without having to stop and remember I choose my behavior).

            Every winter I go through the same routine. After shoveling our sidewalk, I enthusiastically tackle my neighbor’s sidewalk and the top of our very steep, common driveway (to be sure everyone can get their car in the garage without slipping back down the driveway).  Before our neighbor agreed to use our snow removal service, I used to occasionally shovel her side of the driveway. I am fully aware shoveling is my own choice, but when I hear nothing from her, even when she occasionally sees me and we exchange greetings, I am disappointed in my own reaction. 

            The time comes when (after enough episodes of shoveling) I begin wondering why I continue to help her out. The city has ordinances that the public sidewalks are to be shoveled or fines can be levied. I’d mentioned the new ordinance last year. She thanked me for letting her know but still made no attempt to shovel. Eventually I went back to doing her walks.

            We are not talking about an invalid here. Susan is younger than I am and simply has no interest in putting energy into her property. She hires lawn service to do her mowing, and (finally) last year she agreed to a contract with our serviceman for snow removal from the driveway. But it’s hard for me, after being a single parent who reared three boys and worked full-time, to imagine a single, able-bodied woman never bothering to keep up public sidewalks or the street area in front of the mailbox (which is on her side of the driveway). I chide myself for feeling disapproval of Susan’s inactivity. Do I really expect her to shovel, when she routinely walks out to get her mail and steps over the local newspaper lying on her driveway or sidewalk?

            Despite past experience, as each new winter begins I take on the responsibility of shoveling---because I want to be a good neighbor and help her, because I tell myself she might hate the cold, not have a shovel, or be afraid of slipping. If just once a year she commented on my extra efforts, I would do it with a light heart. Instead, by the sixth or seventh shoveling job, I give up hope of her ever noticing.

            By this time of winter, I usually feel taken for granted and tell myself I should put the responsibility back on her shoulders. Let her get fined. Let the newspapers collect on the driveway. In winter the snow plow will eventually move the papers off the driveway, the city plow trucks will push them further down the street and someone else will feel obligated to pick them up in the spring.

            The human side of me battles with spiritual ethics. I let a few snowfalls go by, see no action and then pick up the responsibility again---because I care about the elderly neighbors who are out daily walking their dogs, I care about the mailman being blocked from the mail boxes by mounds of snow, and I think newspapers should be recycled. I justify doing these things because it’s the right thing to do, and because it takes only a bit more effort on my part.

         Am I the problem---enabling Susan to shirk her obligations as a home owner? Or am I being realistic that there will always be people content to ignore whatever does not serve their own interests, content to either let someone else do the work or to simply ignore the mess.

         My family brought me up to believe that in common areas (whether the office lunchroom or a state park) the extra efforts of 20% to pick up more than their share can compensate for the mess of 80% who don’t bother. Will assuming the 20% role give the 80% a free ride? Yes, but I don’t want to imagine a world where everyone ignores responsibility towards some greater good.

          The sense of fair play may be so hard-wired into human nature that I will always wait for a signal of recognition. I may always have to remind myself that I chose to extend good will, and wait while the inner spiritual need overrides that twinge of human irritation. But I have hopes this year of figuring out if there is another way to address this problem, so I can truly give without the need for recognition.



Posted on Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 08:47AM by Registered CommenterThe Skeptical Mystic | CommentsPost a Comment

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