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When Generosity is a Misdemeanor

October 25, 2013

Behind a closed bedroom door I was wrapping birthday gifts for my daughter Audra. She was turning ten. Her sister Emily was only two at the time and watching me work put her in the spirit of giving as well. With no ability to buy gifts on her own, Emily ran around the house finding small items to offer her older sister, mimicking my efforts at wrapping by crumpling each gift inside notebook paper she had found in my office wastepaper basket. At the family party that evening, Audra thanked her little sister for the gift of her own hairbrush, the pencil without a point, the (missing) keys to the family car—all lovingly crushed inside the used binder paper and added to the pile of birthday presents.

“Wow, like, thanks for the …uh, spoon,” Audra said to the delighted Emily, and we collectively stared in dismay at the growing heap of broken, useless and discarded junk, lovingly deposited.  Inspired by her success, Emily nodded and raced wordlessly from the room to find more offerings, the point being we are generous by nature.  Seriously. We’re born altruistic.

Toddlers 18 months old overwhelmingly and instinctively moved to help researchers when they purposely dropped their pencils during an experiment. No words, just an immediate and genuine desire to help.

 But when has “help,” actually hurt?

 There’s a story in that intersection–the one between help and hurt.

Like the time my friend Deni and I spent an entire day picking strawberries in a Virginia farmer’s field, paying by the pound for a haul we could barely carry to the car.  Pounds and pounds of the luscious sweet fruit. It was worth being hunched over in the fields for hours, because I was going to try my hand at making jam to give as Christmas gifts. We got home totally exhausted but feeling truly productive having each harvested an enormous tub of berries. We washed them carefully at Deni’s apartment, picked out all the stems and leaves and dried them off. Deni was a veteran at this whole earth-mother thing so when she came out of the kitchen and sprinkled all my strawberries with a preservative to retain their color, I was grateful for her help–until I got home with my ruby-red treasure and discovered she’d used salt.

Or the time my grandfather took the train out from Ohio to Maryland to stay with us the summer I was 8, and spent the entire three months scraping and sanding a set of two matching wooden chairs down to the original warm cherry wood for my mother. The night before he left, I found them and thought I could help brighten them up a bit. I painted them all with two thick coats of  outdoor house paint.

Write about a time you, or a character, tried to help someone with disastrous consequences. Have you ever given someone lost, directions, only to realize you told them something totally wrong ? Ever given the wrong medicine? Taken care of a relative’s pet with less than stellar results?  Ever trimmed your sister’s bangs to the point of no return? Lost something you’d been entrusted with? Wrecked a borrowed car? Have you ever been “helped” by a perfectionist when you’re not one?

Tap into the conflict between disaster and desire.  

http://www.thestorywithin.com

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