I once received an e-mail forward telling the story of a fictional tourist who wandered through heaven and hell. I typically don’t much care for forwarded e-mails, often finding them shallow and sappy. This one might be both, but for some reason it stuck with me and came around to mean something deeper.
So the story goes, our tourist arrives in hell and is surprised to see a large table around which is seated a group of people. A large pot in the middle of the table contains plenty of food for all of them. But the only utensils the people have are spoons, as long as yardsticks, strapped to their arms. As the diners try to bring food back to their mouths, it slips off their long, clumsy utensils, leaving the people starving and emaciated.
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To the tourist’s further surprise, heaven contains almost the same scenario: table, pot of stew, long spoons. But the people there are well-fed and happy, laughing and talking as they share the meal. Why? Because they are using their long spoons to feed each other, reaching across the table to supply one another’s needs, and in turn having other people meet theirs.
Giving is a two-way street. Growing up in a community-oriented family environment, I guess I never really questioned having my needs met by them or my responsibility to contribute to the family. The needs at stake weren’t only food, shelter, and clothing, but also love, community, and affirmation. When I went to college, I took this mentality with me: your roommates, friends, classmates, even professors, are human beings who deserve your respect and need your care. It works excellently when people in community with each other share this perspective.
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However, not all people do. In college especially, I met some people who were intent on using their spoons to feed only themselves, no matter how clumsy and inefficient the effort. Many were single, reasonably affluent, living on their own for the first time, and absorbed in their own education experiences. Their resources of time, money, energy, were completely consumed by activities they found fun, their own personal goals, or relationships that got them ahead. There was nothing left over to give to others. I, too, tried feeding only myself with my spoon for a while, and it left me feeling tough, yes, self-sufficient, yes, but still gnawingly hungry.
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But constantly feeding other people with your spoon while they continue to feed only themselves is a recipe for straight-up starvation. Long-term, one-sided sacrifice and service lead to burnout and loneliness. Giving to your community is a good thing. In fact, in the short term, sometimes the best and most needed giving is to people who can’t give back. But if you’re constantly feeding others and no one reaches out to feed you back, you’ll end up malnourished, not to mention exhausted and probably disillusioned.
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Successful, mutual relationships are about people using their long spoons to feed each other–parents and children, husbands and wives, church communities, friends. When you look at your resources and, instead of using them all up on yourself, sacrifice some for someone else, you risk not having enough. But the most satisfying feeling in the world is when the math doesn’t add up. You give away something you want or need (affection, time, money, energy, etc.). But instead of being left hungry, someone else comes in and provides for your deficit, making up the difference.
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It’s called love, I think. It’s looking at this enormous, awkward spoon you’ve been given to eat with and, instead of seeing it as an ill-formed impediment because the goal is feeding yourself, seeing it as the perfect tool because the point is to feed someone else.