Once I had a co-worker named Sadie who picked up trash on her walk to work each morning.
She’d arrive at the office with a bag full of litter – sometimes two bags – that she’d collected along the roadside on her 20-minute trek. She’d dump the garbage in the outside bin, come inside and wash her hands, and go to work.
And not once did she ever mention this to anyone.
The only reason I knew about it was because I caught her in the act one day. Roaring down Rosemary Street in my Jeep SUV, I spotted her as she stopped on the sidewalk to pluck a discarded Big Gulp cup from the weeds.
I assumed she was participating in a civic project, a neighborhood cleanup drive, perhaps a self-improvement challenge. But when I confronted her, she was embarrassed and acted as if she’d been busted for some unspecified crime.
“Why are you doing this?”
“I don’t know,” she said, and shrugged. “It just looks nicer with the trash picked up.”
So far as I know, nobody ever gave Sadie a medal for her efforts. No highway sign heralded her worthy deeds. She did what she did for no recognition or reward. She did it because that was the sort of person she was.
Where’s My Best Neighbor Prize?
Sadie got me thinking about something I had done years before.
This was back when I lived on Arlington Street, in a brown two-story house with a big front lawn. Next door were the Hollingsworths. Each summer the Hollingsworths vacationed for several weeks. Once when they were away I was mowing our half-acre of crabgrass and dandelions, when I accidentally swerved and cut a swath of their lawn. To even things out, I cut a little more. And before I knew it, I had mowed the Hollingsworths’ entire lawn.
When they returned, Ted Hollingsworth was surprised to find his yard more beautiful than when he had left.
“Who did such a magnificent thing?” he went around the neighborhood asking.
“No idea,” I said, having told nobody, and feeling quite Buddha-like in my benevolence.
But it gnawed at me.
It bugged me that Ted thought another neighbor down the street had done it. It bothered me even more that Ted sometimes left his recycling tub on my side of the driveway, and that his dog barked at night. How rude, in light of my selflessness.
Finally, at a block party where he was marveling again at his secret benefactor, I could take it no longer.
“It was me,” I said. “I mowed your lawn.”
Ted looked at me, and then burst out laughing, “Yeah right.”
He thought I was kidding. Good old Jay the jokester, trying to jump on the philanthropy train. And of course he never did believe me, nor did anyone else, and so the joke was on me.
The Zen Master of Trash
We humans are complicated creatures. Our motives for doing pretty much everything are usually mixed. At least mine are.
On one level, Sadie and I both acted out of self-interest. She wanted to be someone who cleans up messes in an untidy world. I wanted to be a good neighbor.
But there was a difference. Whereas she genuinely preferred anonymity for her random act of kindness, mine came with a string attached. Deep down – well, actually not so deep – I wanted appreciation. I wanted my Neighbor of the Year prize.
It doesn’t take a Zen master to know whose conduct was a tad more enlightened.
The Awful Yawning Hole Inside Us
I talk to lawyers all the time. Many are unhappy with their law lives. Their dissatisfaction ranges from mild to extreme, but a common thread is a sense of lack. They’re not getting paid what they think they deserve. They’re not getting the applause, the affirmation, the partnership promotion. They’re not getting relief from the disillusionment and stress that darkens their days.
There’s a hole inside them that isn’t being filled.
But I meet just as many lawyers who love what they do. Same pay, same clients, same troubles and woe. And yet they move through their day with lightness and grace.
Why the difference? Perhaps the first group is looking for fulfillment in the wrong places. They’re searching outside themselves, seeking relief from a flawed and fickle world.
The second group looks inward. They’ve already found their gold nugget. It’s not out there and it can’t be taken away.
I forgot to mention that Sadie was one of the brightest lights I’ve known. It wasn’t anything in particular that she would say or do. You just felt better being around her.
You know people like Sadie. Maybe you’re one yourself. You pick up Big Gulp trash and do neighborly deeds not for standing ovations or cash prizes but because your cup is running over, because that is your best self.
Jay Reeves has practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He now helps lawyers create practices that soar. Sadie is still making the world a better place, and Ted Hollingsworth’s dog is still barking. Contact Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-619-2441.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.