At the time of this article, more than a year and a half has passed since the deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. Yet, their lives remain clear in our memory. And for good reason, for there is much we can learn from them. For example, their deaths remind us how a person is remembered.
How do we remember the dead?
Not, “How did they die?”
But, “How did they live?”
Not, “What did they gain?”
But, “What did they give?”
History does not judge them by the number of servants they had, but by the number of people they served. Why did Princess Di embrace an AIDS victim and Mother Teresa comfort a dying child? Isn’t it because they understood that it is far better to wipe a single tear than to shed a thousand? They realized it is actions, not words that count.
We can learn from them and experience the joy of giving. To do so, we need not be as heroic. There is no need to travel to some distant land or search out the less fortunate. All we need do is awaken, to become aware of those around us. Every encounter is an opportunity to give. Our siblings, spouse, children, friends, relatives, co-workers, boss, customers, and all those we meet will gratefully accept our gifts. The gifts I’m referring to are spiritual in nature and, therefore, do not have any costs.
Sometimes we forget how much we have to offer. For example, though tired of waiting in line at the bank, we can offer the stressed-out bank teller a warm smile and the gifts of patience and understanding. We have the power to uplift her spirit and make her day! At home or in the office, our words of encouragement can plant the seeds of confidence in the minds of our children and co-workers.
You say your teenage daughter has dyed her hair pink and there is nothing you can do about it? Well, don’t fret; there is something you can do. You can give her the gift of acceptance, unconditional love. You see, all through life we are told to conform to the standards of others, instead of being accepted for whom we are. It starts with mommy and daddy, then it’s our teachers and peers, followed by our supervisors in our workplace. Even our boy and girlfriends (and later our spouses) get into the act! It seems as if everyone is telling us what to do and how to think. No wonder people hunger for a little acceptance. Speaking of hunger, it takes more than food banks to feed the hungry. It also takes spiritual gifts, such as acceptance.
There are many more gifts that we can give. For instance, the gift of interest. What do you imagine is the worst thing we can do to someone? It is not to hate them, but to be indifferent toward them, to display no interest. If someone were to hate you, it may be because of envy. Hatred, then, is an expression of interest. Imagine what it would be like if no one had the slightest interest in you. That would hurt! Our gift of interest can help satisfy the craving for attention. Ironically, it is only after we express our interest in others that we can learn how interesting they are!
Still another gift is that of recognition. There are more people starving for recognition than there are starving for food. Why is praise so sought after? Because, like gold and diamonds, it is rare and hard to find. Can you remember how many times you were frustrated because your achievements and efforts went unrecognized? We can stop frustrating others by bearing the gift of recognition. Since praise is free, let’s offer it freely, but it has value only when it is sincere.
The greatest gift we have to offer is that of time, for time is the stuff life is made of. As our only nonrenewable resource, it is precious. What greater way of expressing love, than by devoting time to those we care about and those in need? Walt Whitman, the poet, expressed it this way, “Behold, I do not give lectures or a little charity. When I give, I give myself.” When we give to our friends, we draw them closer. When we give to our enemies, we change them into friends.
The deaths of Mother Teresa and Princess Diana remind us of our own mortality. It’s almost as if they were whispering, “The time to give is now.” Or, as Marcus Aurelius wrote in the second century, “Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.”