Why is it that we do what we do … or we don’t?
I’ve been thinking a lot about what motivates people to do things, the personal initiative it takes to get things done. I think it’s an interesting question. Let’s face it, many times we simply don’t FEEL like doing the things we should. Whether we’re talking about the foods we consume, our exercise programs, our spiritual practices or budget restraints, whether it’s visiting an elderly aunt, writing ‘thank you’ notes, or helping a neighbor stain his deck ~ sometimes it’s hard to get going.
What is it that we draw on that gets us up and moving? And is there any difference between the motivation for the things we do for the sake of others and those we do for ourselves? I’m not so sure there is, but for today anyway, I’m just looking at that which prompts us to extend ourselves for other people, especially when we just don’t “feel” like it. And hey, I’ve considered everything from self-discipline to guilt.
As parents, my husband & I have used all sorts of techniques and reasoning to teach our boys the importance of extending themselves beyond the norm with varying degrees of success. We’ve employed everything from consequences (“You’re not leaving this house until you finish!) to yes, I confess, even the old mother guilt trip!
A few years ago, I was in a heated … um … ‘discussion’ with one of my boys that centered around, “Why do I have to?” I don’t even remember the specific details but we went back and forth for several minutes. And then, somewhat exhausted from the arguments, my basic belief miraculously gelled, I looked into his eyes and said quietly, “Baby, sometimes you just do things because it’s important to other people.”
And so, it is. You watch your younger brother at his middle school lacrosse game instead of hanging out with your college friends. You eat dinner with your family at the table instead of retreating with your food to another room to watch TV. You sit with your wife through some sappy movie when you’d rather be watching an action flick. You listen patiently to your Grandma tell the same story over again when you’d like to say, “Okay already, you’ve told me that before.” You read Curious George at the Zoo to your 3 year-old for the third time instead of reading your email. You watch coverage of World Cup Soccer with your husband when you’d rather be watching Olympic gymnastics. You do these things, because it’s important to other people.
National Public Radio has a wonderful series, This I Believe. I have written about it before in a post on Why Do We Practice. The series is based on a show from the 1950’s that was hosted by Edward R. Murrow and reprized a few years ago in which, “Americans from all walks of life share the personal philosophies and core values that guide their daily lives.” All of this in 350 – 500 words. The essay writers are then invited to read their philosophies on the air. The 4-5 minute stories never fail to be poignant and inspirational. If you’re in to podcasts, the program is available through iTunes and well worth the (FREE) download.
One piece that I heard last year speaks eloquently to this issue of personal initiate. You can listen to the author, Deirdre Sullivan, read her essay, Always go to the Funeral, on the NPR website which is also printed below.
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Always Go to the Funeral
by Deirdre Sullivan
I believe in always going to the funeral. My father taught me that.
The first time he said it directly to me, I was 16 and trying to get out of going to calling hours for Miss Emerson, my old fifth grade math teacher. I did not want to go. My father was unequivocal. “Dee,” he said, “you’re going. Always go to the funeral. Do it for the family.”
So my dad waited outside while I went in. It was worse than I thought it would be: I was the only kid there. When the condolence line deposited me in front of Miss Emerson’s shell-shocked parents, I stammered out, “Sorry about all this,” and stalked away. But, for that deeply weird expression of sympathy delivered 20 years ago, Miss Emerson’s mother still remembers my name and always says hello with tearing eyes.
That was the first time I went un-chaperoned, but my parents had been taking us kids to funerals and calling hours as a matter of course for years. By the time I was 16, I had been to five or six funerals. I remember two things from the funeral circuit: bottomless dishes of free mints and my father saying on the ride home, “You can’t come in without going out, kids. Always go to the funeral.”
Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that.
“Always go to the funeral” means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.
In going to funerals, I’ve come to believe that while I wait to make a grand heroic gesture, I should just stick to the small inconveniences that let me share in life’s inevitable, occasional calamity.
On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the work week. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.
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And so sometimes we just do it: “Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.” Lord, how many of us can say the same?