Lately, I feel like I’ve been living a double life. Mornings you’ll find me working, serving, and being a busybody. Afternoons, you’ll probably find me in a dress on a garden bench or in a rocking chair alone on the lawn. In the mornings I’m very chatty; I’ll ask you about your vacation, your weekend, your grandchildren, your shoes… and I’ll listen to whatever you want to tell me! In the afternoon, however, I like to quietly focus on reading theological texts, passages from the bible, or existential ruminations on dance. Sometimes, I’ll even paint my nails in the evening, even though I know the polish won’t last through the next morning’s dishwashing.
By 12:00, I begin my bike ride up the hill, away from my kitchen duties, and toward a slower afternoon of reading, writing, and planning. After working 4-6 hours in the kitchen, that midday heat is just enough to make a girl feel like a slime monster. Luckily I’m able to hop into a cool shower every afternoon, in which I can wash off the slime and become a girl once more. By the time I’ve dressed for the afternoon, the whole morning suddenly feels very far away.
On one of these afternoons as I was walking down along The Corner, I saw a woman desperately asking for help. She needed allergy medicine, and she was obviously frustrated that no one seemed to hear her. As I drew near, I recognized this woman as one of the guests who frequent The Haven. She often asks for benadryl and anti-itch cream at the help-desk, to no avail. That morning, she was particularly grieved at not having been able to have taken a shower. She relies on these showers to wash away the pollen and pollutants causing her eyes and sinuses to itch, swell, and ooze. She was only in her 20’s, but she looked much older.
Immediately, I approached this woman and brought her into the CVS to buy her some benadryl and nose-spray. As we walked through the aisles, she thanked me profusely. When I approached the self-checkout station, she pressed me for something to eat or a little cash. A small voice inside my head reproached me for my generosity. It said, “You serve this woman food every morning, you just dropped 30 bucks on her allergy medicine, and now she’s asking for more?!” I told her I didn’t have the money for her food, bought her the medicine, and politely wished her a good day before leaving.
For days, I was troubled by my sensitivity to her request for food. Why did her request make me feel used, like some blundering, naive, soft thing who would throw down thirty dollars without hesitation? But also, should I have bought her that food? What kind of responsibility do I have for guests outside The Haven. How do I dictate the boundaries of my compassion? My generosity troubled me, but my being troubled by my own generosity troubled me too.
That encounter made me realize just how narrowly I had heretofore perceived the sphere of service in my daily life, and how unprepared I still am, despite my daily service, to reckon with the amount of need that pervades our daily lives. The moment my two, tidy worlds collided, I fretted for days about the virtue of my decision. I am privileged enough to have the ability to organize my schedule into times to serve and times to study, but the reality is that need, and therefore service, is unending and pervasive – it doesn’t only exist before noon, and its call beckons even as I sit in the garden to study. Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for rest, and a time for work. However, the Old Testament begins by placing Adam in The Garden to till the soil, or to serve the soil, as the original Hebrew indicates. Therefore, even in rest, we should remember that work and service are, as Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler note, “a part of the divine plan”.