Birthday Ruminations

On a recent Wednesday, “Cliff” came to the Ministry Center. It had been almost five months since he’d been by, and we had heard that he had just been briefly hospitalized after a fall, so we were relieved to see him.

“You know,” Cliff said, “I was filling out a form this morning when I suddenly realized it’s my birthday! I just didn’t think about it until I had to write down the date. It’s my 50th!”

We all congratulated Cliff and wished him a happy birthday. The occasion was announced and re-announced throughout the day, and Cliff was congratulated over and over again.

Over lunch, i asked Cliff to reflect on his fifty years. My first question to him was “What is the greatest change you’ve seen in your lifetime?” After a couple of queries, it was clear that all of Cliff’s responses were going to take the same form: “That’s a really good question, and I have an answer for you,” he would say, then immediately answer.

When i asked Cliff when he has felt like he was at his best, he didn’t hesitate. “Great question! I have an answer for you. I would have to say I’ve been my best when I have been of use. When I have been helpful to someone.”

There were nods of agreement around the table. Several of the other men talked about times when they have been helpful. Whether it was through a job, helping a neighbor, or volunteering at the Endurance Ride, helping people was clearly a source of satisfaction and self-esteem.

There is a bunch of research that shows that altruistic behavior doesn’t just make us feel warm and fuzzy; it has a genuine positive impact—physical and emotional—on the helper. It can lower levels of pain and depression in people who are ill. People in recovery may even have a greater chance of maintaining their sobriety if they are helping others.

You could see that in the faces around the table. Victor, talking about a customer service job he held for years. Franklin, remembering how he helped Emmaus move into this building. Mary, Al, other staff, and me, hearing the warmth and wistfulness in their voices, and perhaps praying that in this work we, too, may be helpful to someone.

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