Branko Copic (b. 1915) was a Bosnian-Herzegovinian writer well loved in his homeland, which was formerly known as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. His children stories, novels, narratives, and poetry touched the lives of many. One day in 1984 he called a friend to ask a favor. “Why don’t you come over so we can chat?” “I’m sorry, Branko,” his friend answered, “but I don’t have any time today.” A few hours after that phone call, Branko Copic leaped from a bridge to his death. Suffering from depression and feeling all alone, he committed suicide. Had Branko’s friend responded to his gentle plea for companionship, things may have turned out differently.
The favors we do for friends and others have wide ramifications. But the significance of the little acts of kindness we do or refuse to do may not be known until many years in the future. Because we cannot see the consequences of our actions when we carry them out, we tend to trivialize them. We may think our small acts of kindness make very little difference and are unimportant. However, the Dhammapada (teachings of Buddha) caution us not to take that view: “Do not belittle your virtues saying, ‘They are nothing.’ A jug fills drop by drop. So the wise man becomes brimful of virtue.”
A friend of mine, whom I’ll call ‘Harry,’ did not trivialize the value of his actions. One day, while entertaining guests in his condominium, Harry was interrupted by a phone call from his friend, Bob, who suffered from severe clinical depression. Harry excused himself and took the call in another room. After picking up the receiver, Bob meekly asked, “Is it all right? Am I interrupting anything? Is it okay to speak?” “Sure,” Harry answered, “tell me whatever is on your mind.” Bob poured out his heart, explaining how depressed, and even suicidal, he felt. But before hanging up 40 minutes later, he said to Harry, “Thanks to you, I’m feeling better now.”
Today, Bob is radically different. His depression is under control and because of his new lady friend, he is no longer lonely. Did Harry save Bob’s life? We may never know the answer to that question, but one thing we know for certain is that he helped Bob in an hour of need.
The two examples I have given may help to point out the most important time, person, and thing in our lives. THE MOST IMPORTANT TIME is NOW. If we don’t act at this moment, the opportunity that beckons us may never reappear. And the only time we have the power to act is now. The past is changeless and the future is a mere possibility.
THE MOST IMPORTANT PERSON is the one we are with now. We may be with them in person, on the phone, or exchanging an e-mail. We can make a difference in the lives of only those we are interacting with. As a potter smooths the clay, the clay smooths the hands of the potter. So it is with our good deeds. As we mold the lives of others with acts of kindness, our deeds mold us. By being kind we become kind.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is to help others. By doing so, we create a better world. And since we live in this world, it is to our advantage to make it a better place.
Here are some teachings from the Pirke Avot (early rabbinic teachings of Jewish sages) that will reinforce the points I wish to make, “Study is not the goal, DOING is. Do not mistake ‘talk’ for ‘action.’ Pity fills no stomach. Compassion builds no house. Understanding is not yet justice.” (Pirke Avot 1:17) And, “We are here to do. And through doing to learn; and through learning to know; and through knowing to experience wonder; and through wonder to attain wisdom; and through wisdom to find simplicity; and through simplicity to give attention; and through attention to see what needs to be done.” (Pirke Avot 5:27) And once we see what needs to be done, we are here to do it now.
We shouldn’t waver, then, when friends ask a favor. Rather, we should savor the opportunity to grow in worth and wisdom. This is not to say we should neglect ourselves. Not at all, we must be concerned about ourselves first. For we alone are responsible for our lives. We need to look after ourselves before we can take care of others. But it is a matter of balance, for if our only concern is ourselves, we will have little to contribute to the world. The Pirke Avot also makes this point: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” (1:14)
Balance is important because we cannot be at two places at the same time. If my friend wants to join me for coffee but my son wants to spend time alone with me, I will decline my friend’s offer. But if we decline graciously, rather than spurn a friend, we give him or her a favor. For as the First Century BC Roman Writer Publilius Syrus wrote, “To refuse graciously is to confer a favor.”
Of course, it isn’t possible, or wise, to grant every favor. If a friend wastes all his money and now comes to you to borrow some more, there is nothing you can do if you don’t have any to spare. It isn’t wise to go into debt to help your friend, for if you were to do so, where there was one person short of cash, there will now be two. Besides, helping those who act irresponsibly only increases their dependency and weakens them. For their own good, they need to experience the consequences of their misdeeds, so they can learn from them and grow.
Constantly being asked to do favors is not a burden, but a sign that one has many friends. And it is an opportunity to gain new experiences as well as gain the wisdom to decide which favors to grant and which to turn down. Our little acts of kindness can pay big dividends to our friends. For example, by spending ten minutes with a friend to share my knowledge of cameras, I may save him hours of work as he decides which camera to buy. Similarly, he may recommend to me a book to read, a web site to visit, or a piece of software to try. So, the time we spend with others adds value to the time we spend with ourselves. This is not to suggest, however, that we should willingly grant favors because we will eventually receive benefits. No, the biggest favor we can do for ourselves is to grant favors to others with no expectation or hope of any reward. For by doing so, we can make the world a favorable place for all by blessing it with the favors we do as we pass by.