If you talked to most people who’ve known me, they’d say, “He’s the nicest guy in the world. He’ll do anything for you.” And it’s true: I would.
But I’ve come to realize that being the person who constantly gives to others has left me out in the wilderness. I’m not embracing the cliche that “nice guys finish last.” (God knows, the world needs as many nice people as it can get these days.) But if nice guys (and gals) don’t pay attention to their own needs, they eventually run out of gas. You can’t win the race — or even keep up — if your tank is empty.
I’m a giver. It’s second nature to me. And I’m glad for that. Proud, even. Those NF letters in the center of my INFP Meyers-Briggs profile identify me as a Helper. (And, no surprise, it’s a relatively rare combo in the population.)
I’ve always been this way. As a kid I wanted to be a priest so I could help people. (Though I also think the gay boy in me just wanted to wear those stunning embroidered robes.)
Eager to save the world from pollution as the 1960s ecology movement bloomed, I spent a few summer days alone “cleaning up” a fetid, iridescent creek — in an apocalyptic old industrial area that was later designated a toxic waste Super Fund site. (I think my bones are made of DDT and dioxin from that adventure.)
I quit my first job as an ad copywriter after being appalled by the time and money devoted to selling shit to people. (I never liked advertising, but it was a recession and I needed a job after college.) Instead, I started teaching in an inner-city elementary school. To this day, it’s still the most fulfilling job I ever had.
I’ve spent ten years (and counting) as a mentor and surrogate dad to a kid living in a South African settlement, putting him through college and trying like hell to lift him out of poverty in the world’s most unequal society. The experience has been life changing beyond my wildest dreams — but it saddled me with massive debt. And my own life goals languished on the back burner for a decade.
I helped a group of newly arrived refugees find their way in an unfamiliar country. I’ve been a literacy tutor for guys in prison. I served luncheons to a group of dapper gay seniors who bravely lived their lives in a much riskier era. I was an elder companion for a lonely, bitter old WWII nurse, taking her out on walks and helping her smile again.
I’m not saying I’m Mother Theresa. I’m not up for some humanitarian of the century award. But I’ve done more good than most of the people in my circle — who are not bad people in any way. (And I’ve helped many of them over the years, too.)
But on one hand I look at all these experiences… and on the other hand I look at my own life. It’s nowhere close to where I thought it would be. I’m a Libra — and my scales are way out of whack. So many people have lapped me in this marathon. It’s long past time for a major course correction.
Maybe it’s the pandemic, cruelly demonstrating for all of us how fickle and short life can be. Maybe it’s having crossed a shocking age threshold to 60 — waking me up to the fact that I don’t have all the time in the world left. No, I don’t think that 60 is two steps away from death. But it is the first decade birthday where you realize that the horizon isn’t endless. Every moment that I spend subjugating my own needs to help others is a page from a dwindling calendar that I can’t get back.
When I was 13, I cut a Jules Feiffer cartoon out of the paper and taped it to my wall. In each panel, a scowling woman looks at the reader and states that she’s given up housework, breaks all promises, let the houseplants die. In the final panel, looking blissful at her kitchen table, she says “Who knew there could be such happiness?” Amazing that in seventh grade this resonated with me. I only wish I’d heeded the woman’s advice sooner.
So for now at least, the kitchen is closed. The giving tree has been chopped down. I’m burying my former-Catholic guilt and saying “no” to people. I’m putting my own needs first. Because, as Diana Ross sang, “It’s my turn.”
And when my own life is solidly on the fast track — in a more balanced way, I’ll start giving again. After all, it’s who I am.