I have been feeling particularly useless lately. I am my family’s sole breadwinner, but the federal government shutdown means that I cannot work and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. And how have I used my eight unplanned vacation days? Visiting and spending time with my friends and family (clearly, not blogging or anything else from my list last week).
The most “productive” thing I’ve done with my new-found free time is attend a required ethics course, at which one of the speakers cited Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography to encourage us to adopt Franklin’s Two Daily Questions. The Morning Question asks: “What good shall I do this day?” and the Evening Question follows: “What good have I done today?” The speaker’s intention was to encourage the room full of attorneys to do more pro bono work, but it prompted me to question my current resource allocation more broadly.
In the past year (the final months of my pregnancy and the first nine months of my son’s life), I have become increasingly insular. I go to work in order to support my family, and while my job allows for a healthy work/life balance, it does not make the world a better place. Sure, saving U.S. taxpayers money is “good,” but I don’t think that’s what Ben Franklin had in mind. When I am not working, I want to be with my family and friends. I used to volunteer often – with local clean-up projects, professional and alumni organizations, church fundraisers, charity events, etc. – but those activities generally take more time, money, and/or energy than I am now willing to give.
On the one hand, I tell myself that it is okay to be a little self-centered as I settle into family life. My husband is my best friend and we truly enjoy each other’s company, plus, after eight years of living on opposite sides of the world, we like to spend as much time together as possible (and I say this after ten solid days of being together almost 24/7). We are still figuring out our “approach” to parenting, and since my husband is with our son every weekday, I have to make the most of the evenings and weekends. As any parent knows, the early months of a child’s life are packed with firsts, so skipping out on time with my son risks missing something (this week he learned to open his mouth and say “ahhh”). Moreover, having a new baby is expensive and exhausting, leaving little surplus for good deeds.
On the other hand, I firmly believe that we must, as Mahatma Gandhi urged, be the change we wish to see in the world. I do not want to live in a society where everyone just takes care of themselves. We are all enriched by the diverse gifts of those who share their skills, knowledge, and resources, and so I believe we also all have a duty to contribute. When I was young, my mother told me that her contribution to a better world is me and my sister. Many of my professors and mentors have made similar statements, that their “good” is training me and my peers to make a difference. The weight of that responsibility has followed me throughout my life, and never have I felt more like a failure than I do now. So much time, money, knowledge, and effort has been poured into me, and I feel I am wasting it on a pay-the-bills job and selfish family time.
Maybe I am gaining skills and experience that will lead to a more meaningful career down the road. Or maybe I will just plug away but eventually be wealthy enough to make monetary donations to those doing influential work for the greater good. Or perhaps I will find some way to do both. Benjamin Franklin is also credited with popularizing the idea of “doing well by doing good.” I like the concept, and see it at work in many eco-friendly, socially-conscious, sustainable business practices, but unlike the companies that have adopted his philosophy, Franklin did not do good in order to achieve financial success. Ben Franklin could have become the wealthiest man of his time by patenting his inventions, but instead made them available to all for the public good. So where does that leave me?
I do not know the answer to the perplexing riddle of how and how much good I can and should do at this point in my life. For now, I will continue with the little things I do on a regular basis – calling my 95-year-old grandmother, buying Street Sense newspapers to support the homeless, mentoring young(er) people, and performing random acts of kindness for strangers. And I will be an honest, compassionate, and helpful citizen, as well as a devoted wife and mom, which will hopefully be enough to make my mother proud.
Does anyone else struggle with the competing desires to care for your family but also to contribute to the greater good? Have you found way(s) to do both?