My mother often yelled “Go make yourself useful,” when we were underfoot in the kitchen or later on when we lopped our teenaged selves over any piece of furniture pointed in the direction of the TV.
Nowadays, however, I place her advice in a completely different context. And recently I encountered three shining examples of making oneself useful in all its updated significance.
Although former senator and presidential candidate Bob Dole seldom crossed my mental radar screen after his retirement from public office in the late 90’s, I suppose I was vaguely aware that he co-chaired corporate funding efforts for the National World War II Memorial that opened in 2004.
Senator Dole was himself a thrice-decorated war veteran, losing the use of his right arm and shoulder. Eventually he was able to take his doctor’s advice to concentrate on what he could do with what he had left rather than focusing on what he had lost, subsequently building a solid career of political service.
And the 94-year-old Dole is still making himself useful. On most Saturdays the wheelchair-bound former soldier, who requires help for the half hour it takes him to dress, shows up at the World War II Memorial to greet fellow vets visiting the monument that honors them.
Posing for photos and exchanging “vet talk” is physically punishing for the frail former senator; and yet, his weekly outings energize him. As he reminds each fellow veteran, “We’re all in this together,” it seems Bob Dole is accomplishing his goal of making a positive difference in the lives of others.
Likewise, age and physical limitations have not kept another octogenarian-plus from bringing joy into the lives of others. The true passion of 99-year-old Carl Webb, former real estate agent, was always singing. A faithful member of his church choir, he also entertained at weddings and parties. The day came, however, when Carl’s diminishing eyesight prevented him from seeing his choir music, sadly reducing his church activity to mere attendance.
Searching for a new way to serve, the monthly birthday list posted on the church bulletin board came to Carl’s attention. Combining a large-print version of that list with his still-strong tenor voice, Carl began calling five or six people every day to sing “Happy Birthday.”
Over the 17 years he has been singing over the phone to family, church members, and sometimes even strangers, Carl has made an estimated 35,000 calls. The church secretary sums it up: “Carl is somebody who’s trying to use God’s gifts as other windows close.”
It is not just Boomers who make themselves useful. A California teen and her mother recently boarded a reassigned flight after a cancellation. When Clara Daly heard a flight attendant requesting sign language help for a passenger, the 15-year-old, who learned American Sign Language to help herself with her dyslexia, volunteered.
Clara found herself assisting a passenger who could not see or hear. She spelled into his hand whenever he wanted a bottle of water or an extra blanket. Her help seemed to calm the lone traveler; in fact, he asked her to just sit and talk for the last half hour of the flight. When asked about her random act of kindness that stretched into a random flight of kindness, Clara replied simply, “Doing something like that is just like what anyone would have done.”
The stories of Bob Dole, Carl Webb, and Clara Daly illustrate my updated version of Mother’s “Go make yourself useful” exhortation. But her words further transformed themselves into what I often told my students, “If everyone does a little, nobody has to do it all.”
That corollary statement became evident each year the members of the National Honor Society and I worked to organize the blood drive. The NHS kids, as well as their fellow students, witnessed first-hand that every cookie donated to the canteen, every chair set up in the gymnasium, every donation recruited and made was vital to providing “the gift of life.” Every participant walked away from that day understanding the power of collective service.
Moving through my sixth decade of life into a seventh, however, I have discovered another facet of Mother’s mantra. As the aches and pains of old age continue to pile up, I find it ever easier to concentrate on my problems, to hold more frequent pity parties.
But I also find that doing something for someone else completely changes my focus, helping to reduce such concentrated self-concern. I relish the sense of purpose renewing my spirit as I knit a hat for a needy child or stitch a sampler for the living room of the new Habitat for Humanity house.
We can make ourselves useful in so many ways, large and small. Sending a cheery card to a shut-in, reading a story to a class of kindergartners, dropping off a couple dozen home-baked cookies to the fire department, adding items for the local food pantry to our shopping carts each week or just once in a while – these actions help us forget our own trials and tribulations by reaching out to others.
Making ourselves useful, in the end, is the ultimate win-win situation. Consider these words by novelist Caroline Leavitt in Cruel Beautiful World: “Sometimes…in crazy times, it helps to do something nice for someone.” Indeed, every act of usefulness makes the world a better place for us all.