My youngest daughter delivered baby number five a week ago. That makes ten grandchildren for us—woohoo! The baby, a girl, was good-sized for being ten days early—9 lbs 10 oz—but she was breathing shallowly and her oxygen levels weren’t where they should have been. When they x-rayed her chest, there were some spots in her lungs. The doctors thought it was likely a viral infection, but they treated it with antibiotics just in case it was bacterial. So my newest grandchild spent the first few days of her little life in the NICU hooked up to all kinds of wires and tubes. Fortunately, everything cleared up and she was able to come home a week after she was born.
They tell me she is beautiful. I wouldn’t know—I haven’t seen her yet. It’s not that she’s too far away—it’s only a 15 to 20 drive to my daughter’s house. No, I’ve been done in by a wicked cold with a nasty cough. Oh, I’ve seen pictures, but it’s just not the same. To make matters worse, I haven’t been able to help with the other children either. Because my daughter left the hospital before the baby was ready to be discharged, she had to go in every three hours to feed the baby. The older girls were in school, but the two youngest children needed someone to watch them while Mom was gone. I had the time and availability, but because we didn’t want the siblings to be sick when the new baby came home, Grandma stayed away. I wasn’t “invited to the party,” as my daughter lovingly, but emphatically, informed me.
So here I sit. For the first few days of the cold I felt too crummy to help anyway, but now I feel good except for this nagging cough. My daughter says I am helping by staying away. I suppose that is true, but it doesn’t feel much like helping.
There is something deep within the human soul that inherently wants to be useful. Sometimes our circumstances, like my cold, get in the way. And sometimes circumstances hamper even the desire to be useful. Take depression for example. One thought habit that many depressed people fall into is what Dr. David Burns calls “do-nothingism.” Depression slowly chips away at your willpower until you feel like you can’t do anything productive. Then you end up in this terrible conflict between the inherent desire to be useful and the distorted belief that you couldn’t do anything useful even if you tried. It is a very dark and destructive downward spiral. I know—I’ve been there.
A more insidious source that gets in the way of fulfilling the desire to be useful is a culture that says the ideal job is the one that pays the most money for the least amount of work, and the ideal life is the life of leisure and entertainment. This brings to mind a poem I memorized in high school that has stayed with me through the years.
I was involved in drama, and for a competition I did a reading of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “The Suicide.” I find it incredibly ironic, now, that I would choose that particular poem given that in the future I would have my own struggles with suicidal thoughts, but back then it just seemed very dramatic. The speaker in the poem begins by lamenting what seems to her a wretched lot in life. She accuses life of taking from her all pleasures and blames it for her not having that to which she felt entitled. She protests,
Ah, life, I would have been a pleasant thing
To have about the house when I was grown
If thou hadst left my little joys alone!
I asked of thee no favor save this one:
That thou wouldst leave me playing in the sun!
When her mortal life finally ebbs away, she rejoices that she has arrived back at her beloved Father’s home. There she finds everything she wanted on earth but could never obtain:
Ah, days of joy that followed! All alone
I wandered through the house. My own, my own,
My own to touch, my own to taste and smell,
All I had lacked so long and loved so well!
None shook me out of sleep, nor hushed my song,
Nor called me in from the sunlight all day long.
However, it doesn’t take long before she realizes that she is lonely in her leisure; everybody around her seems to be busy doing her Father’s work. Finally she goes to her Father and complains that she is weary of her “lonely ease . . . . / To sit all day in the sunshine like a weed / That grows to naught.” Then she begs for “a little task / to dignify my days,—‘tis all I ask / Forever, but forever, this denied, / I perish.” Her Father then points out to her that he has given her everything she asked for, assuring her that, “all thy days this word shall hold the same: / No pleasure shalt thou lack that thou shalt name.” Then comes the last line, a phrase that has haunted me for more than 40 years: “ ’Thou hadst thy task, and laidst it by,’ he said.”
I don’t know why that line struck me as a teenager; it certainly didn’t seem applicable at that point in my life. Perhaps the Lord knew I would need that counsel in the future. For whatever reason, it has always hovered in the back of my mind, an ever-present reminder that the only thing worse than too much to do is too little to do.
So for now I do what I can to be useful—I cheer from the sidelines, do whatever needs to be done here at home, and try to get over this cold. But my yearning is with a new little being, a tiny soul I can’t wait to hold next to my heart and whisper in her ear how much she is loved and how glad we are that she has joined our family.
Image Copyright: Mongkol Chakritthakool