Giving All Without Losing Yourself

When a friend needs help…do you? Always? For as long as it takes? No matter what? How can you not!

This is more than philosophic musing. I have been engrossed with these thoughts since a good friend of mine raised similar questions as he has been giving of himself to a close friend of his. 

Frank is a very good man dealing with a formidable situation. In addition to running a successful business and being part of a family with two teenage boys he is helping a friend. The word “helping” actually does not begin to describe the commitment of time as well as physical and emotional energy. And yet for those who believe that there is a right way to live, there is no real choice. One does what one has to do. He wrote about it.  What Would You Do If a Friend Needed Help? Gets right to the point. You help in every way you can. Frank is the true ubermench.

But are there…should there be…must there be limits to what you give of yourself? After all, some situations can be or at least appear to be a black hole. No matter what you give it gets sucked in and still there is darkness. Progress if it comes at all comes slowly and often situations get much worse without any visible path to better. We all have others that need us as well. Can we give to one at the cost of not being there for another in our lives? And what about us? If we give so much that we have little left, then what?  Should we not preserve ourselves?

Bill took this on in a comment to Frank. It is worth repeating here. Bill is the closest person to a philosopher that I know. (If there were an election for philosopher king instead of president, Bill would be leading the polls.) His guidance to Frank:

We live in a world of scarcity. We live among men and women of innate volition. We are temporal.

At some point, you need to choose how much of yourself you can invest in rectifying a given scarcity and a given decision. Because you are scarce too. You are temporal too. Some of you can be invested, even in a losing cause because it is the right thing to do, but there are other right things that also need to be reserved for.

Your own peace, development and happiness are worth reserving for.”

I was so moved by both these men that it has taken weeks before I could write about this. I very much agree with Bill’s words. I have seen people give until they had nothing left. There is a line to be drawn that allows each of us to give without losing ourselves. I am not one to give advice to Frank or anyone else. And yet..

Once you accept that there is such a line,  how does this affirmation change the way you think or behave about helping your friend? Do you stop? No. Do you do less? If so, how much less?  How much do you pull back when the need continues to be strong. What if you just gave your all for another day, week, month? How would you feel if something went irreversibly wrong and maybe something you could have done would have made a difference. While we are temporal and scarcity abounds, do we not get comfort from what we do for others? Are we not temporal but renewable as well. Astounding amounts of energy are, at times, generated by the process of doing good.

There was a time in my life where I gave a lot of myself to a friend in need. At the time I was single so there were fewer demands on me and yet by most people’s definitions this was a huge commitment. At times it drained me. At times I was frustrated, hurt or confused. Yet I am convinced that I played a role in getting this friend and her child to the other side. there was a reward for the efforts but at many times along the way I was going on hope and faith.

I thought the same thing then as Frank does now. It is how I was brought up. What surprised me at the time was that some people thought I was doing something strange instead of something wonderful. I did what I thought was right. I am OK with that.  Another opportunity for giving is on its way as my mother ages and the responsibility for my autistic sister begins to fall more to me and my other siblings.

The only conclusion that I can think of after all of this philosophic exploration is that Frank is right and Bill is right. However, what makes Bill “the most right” is not the specific words he shared but that he is there for his friend as his friend does for another. To me that is the bottom line.

We all need friends and family who are looking out for us.


A scientist decided to determine if animals other than humans and chimps could communicate and learn. Chimps can communicate through sign language but do not have the vocal chords that are up to the task of human speech. Dr. Irene Pepperberg chose a one year old African parrot named Alex as her subject. An African parrot was chosen because the species has certain social characteristics in common with chimps that were hypothesized to lead to an evolved intelligence. First, they live in complex societies in the wild. Dr. Pepperberg believed that living in large groups would promote intelligence and that intelligence allows large groups to function. Second these parrots live long enough to make the process of learning worthwhile to researchers.

In his 31 years, Alex learned 150 words, could name 50 objects, describe colors and shapes and generally had the intelligence of a 5 year old child. Remarkable you say.

I say who cares. I cannot believe that Alex was the most famous creature to die that week. (This was The Economist’s weekly obituary.) It was only a stupid parrot for gosh sakes. I iterate, who cares.

Actually, for me Alex is just a lame excuse to display the classic Dead Parrot sketch from the first season of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I am including the abbreviated version which captures most of the parrot humor. The full version can be found on YouTube as well. Enjoy!

Big Brother

This opening line gave me chills.

“It used to be easy to tell whether you were in a free country or a dictatorship.”

It is well past 1984 and yet the government can check up on us in ways Orwell never imagined. And you and I make it easy for them.

The line above is from the article titled “Learning to live with Big Brother“. This was the second in a series published in The Economist. It does not focus on the illegal or border-line illegal methods practiced by the current administration. Instead it describes the myriad of information available that we put out there. Everything we do electronically, every payment with a credit or debit card, every website we visit leaves a data trail.

Data mining is being conducted with increasingly sophisticated mathematical formulae that can sift through large data sets to uncover patterns and even predict certain behaviors. This may be helpful for uncovering terrorists but the information can also be used to keep tabs on us non-terrorists.

Even those of us with nothing to hide can be cursed with incorrectly entered data or be mistaken for someone with the same name. Senator Ted Kennedy was denied boarding a plane because his name came up on some list. I get asked if I am “the actor” all the time when I meet new people. (It never ceases to be “funny” no matter how many times I hear it. He is dead btw.)

I am not sure what to do. All we can really do is hope that each future administration uses the data for our good and not for their own evil ways. Or, we can become cave dwellers.

Adult Sippy Cups


For the umpeenth time I noticed after the fact that coffee had dripped on my shirt. (Don’t tell my wife.) Fortunately its a black knit shirt and the stain did not show. The other times I have not been so lucky.

The problem? The tops to the cups often don’t fit snugly. Yet I have become addicted to drinking from cups that come with the tops designed with the little spout. In the car you have to use them or risk major spillage. But here I was at my desk.

Looking at my….my sippy cup.

I am not sure why I never made the connection before. The coffee shops are treating us all like toddlers. Really, the difference is a few centimeters in spout length. The shape is the same. The objective is the same. No spills.

With me, the effect is even the same. Ever see a toddler without juice stains on his shirt?

Complaining: Doctor’s Orders

NPR airs a great series titled This I Believe which is a project getting people to write, share, and discuss the core values that guide their daily lives. The essays are archived and some are selected to become 3 minute orations on NPR.

This latest one struck a cord with with me especially after reading Frank’s post last Friday, Three Cranky Frankie Moments in One Day . In this post Frank complained a bit, justifiably I might add. However later in the comments he seemed apologetic about complaining. He was working on “mood improvement”.

My view is that a little complaining, even with a modest amount of wallowing in self pity, goes a long way to help get you through certain days. Sure if you go overboard it won’t help you and definitely not the ones forced to listen to you. But in moderation…

The next thing I know my amateur psychology is legitimized. By a psychotherapist no less. Professor Barbara Hand is the author of my soon to be favorite book “Stop Smiling, Start Kvetching”.  An excerpt from her essay for This I Believe follows.

Many Americans insist that everyone have a positive attitude, even when the going gets rough… The problem is that this demand for good cheer brings with it a one-two punch for those of us who cannot cope in that way: First you feel bad about whatever’s getting you down, then you feel guilty or defective if you can’t smile and look on the bright side…

I believe that there is no one right way to cope with all of the pain of living…I know that people have different temperaments, and if we are prevented from coping in our own way, be it “positive” or “negative,” we function less well.

…sometimes a lot of what people need when faced with adversity is permission to feel crummy for a while”

This last line says it all for me. Look, if you can be perpetually happy, more power to you. For me, I am on my way to find someone who will listen to me kvetch for awhile. 

Everything Looks Like a Nail

twain.jpg“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” 

(The Economist attributed this quote to Mark Twain though I am trying to independently confirm the source.)

I find this quote illuminating. It explains why two people can observe or experience the same things and understand them quite differently. As humans, we view and interpret data– situations, people etc.– based on our own history, knowledge and skills. Our tools. For some the tool is a hammer but there is a vast array of tools– just check out a Home Depot’s tool aisle.

This led my thoughts back to a paper I had read about interpreting history. When trying to explain major trends or events in history the cause will always be an economic one to an economist, a political one to a political scientist or a religious one to clergy. In most cases while any one interpretation may be supportable and logical, the reality is that there were many forces at work.

I see corollaries in the workplace where lawyers, accountants, marketers, communicators or human resources professionals will see problems and suggest solutions solely from their area of specialty. It is the person or team that can integrate multiple perspectives that will be most effective.

To make this idea more personal, think of families. Husbands, wives and children tend to have different tools. Being self aware enough to recognize this and wise enough to understand the others’ tools can be the difference between anger and bliss. 

I greatly admire those, like Twain, who can find a few words to convey so much.

“To a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail.” 

Note to self. Work on being clever and succinct enough to have an illuminating quote that lives into the next century.


I am a Gemini.  That is the extent of my astrological knowledge.

Every now and then I check my horoscope in the daily paper. They now not only give you words but a 1-10 rating. Today, I am supposedly a 9. And I quote…

“It must be difficult to have such boundless enthusiasm, and yet be cautioned not to announce your joy to the world. OK, maybe just to family”.

Now I do get enthusiastic at times. Of the hundreds of people who know me and the dozens that know me fairly well I would wonder how many would say they have experienced my boundless enthusiasm? Anyways, I woke up after 9 hours of sleep and I still feel like crap and have no energy. Hopefully things will improve as the day goes on.

Horoscopes can’t be wrong can they?

American Taxi Sucks


We have been using the same taxi service for a couple of years. Over time they have moved to more automated reservations. Generally this has worked, until today. Today of all days.

My wife is hoping to catch a plane to leave the country on business. The cab was never going to show. I called when it was 6 minutes late. It took 5 minutes to get a person, I was put on hold, a second person asked “if she could help” meaning the first was not finding our cab. More holding. We were told the cab would be there in “1 minute”.

I got dressed. We were out the door in my car when the cab showed up, 30 minutes late. The driver said that he had just gotten the call. I would have taken my wife to the airport and been two hours late to work. Now I am sitting here hoping she will make her plane. The probability is low. All hell will break loose if that happens. The best case scenario is that she makes the flight but is stressed out for the next hour. Not a very good scenario.

I should have just taken her once they were 10-15 minutes late. If only they would have been truthful when I called. Or better yet, reliable.

Change of Seasons

It had continued to be summer in Chicago for several weeks beyond the official date. Last weekend the temps were in the low 90s. Today it was in the 50s with rain on and off throughout the day. In summer, Sunday mornings are for riding. I am up early and on my bike for hours. In the dead of winter I prefer waking up late and lounging with the Sunday Trib and a big breakfast. Autumn falls somewhere in between.

This morning was the perfect combination of summer and winter moments. It started on the bike. I almost under-dressed but was quickly rewarded for wearing two layers of shirts and a jacket. It was cool and damp as I pedaled north on Sheridan Road.

It took a long time to decide how far to ride. At first with the wind in my face I thought maybe a quick 25 was in order. As I began to warm I realized that there would be few remaining days this year to get in a long ride. I decided not to go for my usual 50 but to tackle at least 40-45.

Best laid plans as they say. At Lake Forest, with a few miles before I intended to turn around, it began to drizzle. I managed to ride about 8 miles in an increasingly heavy rain. Discretion overtook valor. I had about 12 miles and up to an hour of riding to go. so I pulled into a coffee shop that was the last place for many miles to stop. Fortunately I have a caring and understanding wife. She agreed to come get me.

Now my winter morning kicked in. This was a small privately owned shop with 3 tables. The anti-Starbucks of coffee shops. I ordered a large, hot drink, grabbed a paper and sat. There was one other customer in the shop who seemed content to sit for a long tome with his coffee. He did not even look at the Sunday paper laying in front of him. It was quiet. Very quiet. And calm. It was fantastic.

30 miles of biking AND a leisurely morning. What more could I ask for!

Kid’s Sports and Parents

Frank recently wrote about the joy of a last second victory in his son’s high school soccer game.  I applaud Frank all parents who show support for something important to their child. And victories, especially last second ones, are certainly “more fun” than losing.  Sports provide a unique opportunity for parents to show support that are not available in all areas, especially academics. (I have had this fantasy of being in the classroom while my son is taking an exam and leading cheers. Go D. Think. Think. Think. Goooo Brain!)

I believe that sports can play an important role in a child’s life. It can teach teamwork, hard work, respect for others- even opponents, discipline and many more positive qualities. However, it can also be a hugely ugly experience when parents do not know how to behave. When parents are too invested in their child’s sports activities it is rarely good for their child. I do not care what the reason may be. Some parents are living their dreams through their children, others see everything their child does as a reflection on them, and some just can’t distinguish between the cut throat competition in the adult worlds they live in and healthy competition at a child’s level.

My son has played organized sports since he was 4. For many years he did not play team sports at all without there being a referee/umpire to resolve disputes and parents on the sideline watching and shouting. It was rare that parental shouting is limited to general shouts of encouragement. Far too often the parents are yelling because their child is not doing what he/she is supposed to, at least in the parent’s mind, or worse shouting instructions– go left, no right, kick the ball, what the hell are you doing, pay attention.

Often after the game the feedback to the child comes in one of two extremes: here of the list of things that you should have done differently or wow you were wonderful. Even the latter feedback has its drawbacks. It can place importance on sports that often goes beyond what encouragement the child receives for his/her other interests.

Let me share a few examples. My wife coached my son’s soccer team from the ages of 6-10. At these ages all kids of all skill levels are encouraged to participate. The primary focus is on skill development with a side of fun thrown in. The idea is build a love of the game. One year the coaches had to ask a father to leave and threatened to ban him for the season because he was verbally abusive to his son. This was a shy awkward child that over the course of the season, while never becoming a star learned to have fun playing. BTW, the father was thrown out of A PRACTICE. Not even a game.

On the other end, once my son started playing travel soccer, we would see teams decked out in very expensive matching outfits. Often parents would line up, form a bridge and cheer as their kids ran through the bridge at the beginning of the game. I am sure that these parents saw themselves as supportive as opposed to my view–way over the top. It was typically parents from teams like this who would be shouting out for their kid to hurt the other team. Several teams were clearly coached to get away with as much illegal pushing, grabbing and kicking as possible. I am still talking about 11-14 year olds.

I wish that I could say I was always one of the good parents. Always? Not a chance. I did try to limit shouting to encouragement during the game and have D let me know what he thought of the game and his play before I said anything.

The eye opening moment came for me at the beginning of freshman baseball. The high school coach showed two videos. The first were examples of parents over the edge but in a way that one could feel that some parent somewhere could act this way. My favorite was a mom exhorting her 4 year old daughter on how to win at pin-the-tail on the donkey at a birthday party. It ends with the angry and frustrated mom slamming the door on her way out and telling her daughter to find her own ride home.

The second video is by a man who has coached from Jr. High through college. He has many messages but the main one is to release your child to the sport. Let your child make the experience theirs, not yours. 

I cannot describe in words the impact of both these videos. I just wish they were required viewing for all parents with children in sports and for all coaches. There is so much good that can come from participating in sports. Let’s allow our children to get the best of the experience.