Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A (Not So Subtle) Reminder

As I begin to write this post, I think it is important to say that I recognize that there is a risk that if I do not do a good job, this could come across as self-aggrandizement or, on the other extreme, complaining. It is not intended to be either. It is just me sharing the reminder that I was given.

As I suspect most of you know, I live outside of Washington, DC. Since most readers also live in or around the area, you also know that we have been slammed with snow for the last week. The Federal Government has been closed all week. Because things are so bad on our road, I have not been able to get to work - so I have been "working" from home.

This afternoon one of my neighbors and I decided to get the snow off the driveway that we both share with one other person. Both of us have snow blowers, so we clean the whole thing, along with the drive of our neighbor. Since we had a perfectly clear driveway before the new snow started yesterday, it did not take all that long. When we were done, we decided to try to clear a path up the street. We haven't seen much in terms of snow removal efforts on our road, so we decided to take matters into our own hands. We made a strip up the middle wide enough for a car to pass until we got to an area where some snow removal was going on with folks on bobcats. From there, we made sure that driveways were cut out and we cleared some driveways that the owners had not yet gotten to. All in all, we worked for probably half of the day, decided we had done all we could do (we had to hope that the bobcats would continue down the road and pick up what we could not get done) and went home.

I came back inside to continue working on trying to finalize a settlement agreement. There is some time pressure to get it done and an argument can be made that disappearing for half of the day was not the way to accomplish that goal. But, as it turns out, I had only heard back from my client about 20 minutes before I got back in the house. Besides, I do not completely share the urgency of my adversaries and - after all - I had been out doing good. It is a seven-figure deal and I was thinking a little about the dichotomy in my life that I love so much - working on major litigation involving millions of dollars and spending half a day acting like a good-old-boy (I recognize that would be more accurate if I had been working a tractor with a front end loader instead of a snow blower, but it is the best I can do in this example).

I also came home to a number of emails from neighbors thanking the two of us for our work and helping out. Although neither of us had really spent much time thinking about what we were doing - only once when we were about to call it quits did we talk to each other and decide to work our way to one more house - I was starting to feel like a pretty good neighbor and was feeling pretty good about myself.

Then a neighbor called and said that they didn't exactly know how to raise the issue, but they had heard from another neighbor that felt snubbed because we had not cleared their driveway or asked them if they wanted help. I was dumbfounded. We did everyone's driveway at our end of the street. I couldn't imagine that we skipped someone. It is true that we did not go up or down a driveway if it was already done (then we only did the apron), but that was the only way we skipped a house. I honestly cannot fathom how we both could have missed a house, and if we did, it certainly was not intentional. Suddenly, that good feeling was gone. Instead of doing good, I somehow, unintentionally, had done bad.

I worked for a little bit on my settlement and some other work problems and then walked over to the neighbor's house. I apologized and explained that we certainly did not intentionally skip their house. When I walked over, their driveway was done and I think it must have been done when we were out, but that is not really important. What is important is that they certainly felt that we had intentionally skipped them. I apologized over and over. They just said that they appreciated what we had done in the road, but they felt left out.

I walked back to the house not particularly satisfied that I had done anything to repair the snub that I certainly never intended to deliver. After dinner, at the suggestion of Tracy, I poured a large glass of wine and took a hot bath (aren't you glad that this blog does not have pictures?!?) and read some of "Three Cups of Tea." Without making this even longer than it already is by talking about the book, the portion of the book that I read was about Mortenson's time in Pakistan during 9/11. Rather than immediately leaving the country, he continued his work of building schools and other humanitarian efforts for another month. When given the opportunity, he told as many people as possible that not everyone that practiced Islam is a terrorist and he preached the need for education.

When Mortenson returned home and worked through his mail, for the first time, he noticed that he was receiving hate mail. Letters from people that thought he was supporting terrorism and was indirectly responsible for the death of American soldiers and civilians.

I'm not going to claim that we were in remotely similar situations, but I could identify at least a little with what I was reading.

Still upset and not sure what to do, I spent time in prayer. I can't tell you that I came up with an answer, but I was reminded of something significant. I was reminded that my pride and good feelings at having worked in the neighborhood were misdirected. When I was doing the work, I certainly did not think about what people would think - I was just working. Getting other people's driveways just seemed like the thing to do while we were out there. But when I got back and started seeing emails of thanks, I started letting them glorify me.

I have gotten into a habit of ending my prayers most mornings by asking that whatever I do during the day that I be a good example of a Christian man in the world. Although I do not say it this way, what I want people to do is to see my actions and recognize that they are driven by my beliefs and, as a result, to give to glory to God. I want people to recognize my relationship with God. In thinking about how far I strayed from this today and in some quick research, I was drawn to the Sermon on the Mount. In particular, Mathew 5:16 - "In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." (NIV) Or, in another translation - "In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father." (NLT)

I am still concerned that I have created a perception in a neighbor that I snubbed them - or intentionally did not help them. But, since I have done what I can for now to try to share with them that I certainly did not mean anything like that, I am at least equally concerned about the misdirection of my feelings. In some ways, I owe them thanks for the reminder and making me think through this.