Long Spoons Living

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.

Angel Wings

When I was a kid, there seemed to be an invisible fairy who made the house run smoothly. If I left a mess in the playroom, it was gone by morning. Somehow breakfast appeared on the table, and I always had clean clothes to wear. Presto! Magic (also pronounced “mom”).

One of the most novel phenomena about moving into my college apartment was discovering that no invisible fairy lived there. When I dumped clothes on the floor at night–how bizarre!–they were still there in the morning. If I didn’t get off the couch in the afternoon, there was still no dinner ready by evening. But a lot of the tasks required to keep a home running are quite menial, and I still don’t look forward to them. My personal un-favorites: scrubbing the tub and cleaning out moldy vegetables from the refrigerator. Mmm.

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out

I did learn, however, that those tasks are crucial to preventing messes. (See Shel Silverstein poem: “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take The Garbage Out.”) Over time, I started developing a sixth sense: housekeeping. I almost felt invisible fairy wings growing from my back.

This week, a lot of things have needed doing at my house. With my grandma moved in and guests and relatives in and out through a revolving door, the task list just seems to grow and grow. All those people need to eat, need laundry done, need places to sleep, need attention and care. These tasks range from the menial to the yucky to the exhausting. Before I grew the fairy wings, I might not have noticed all those things that needed doing. Even still, my instinct revolts, I have better things to do! But this week, I have been blessed to witness many acts of service, from a dear friend who brought us dinner, to my brother quietly standing at the sink washing plates, to my mom blitzing through a 4-hour grocery shopping marathon on all of our behalf.

I was reminded that really, it’s not about clean plates or a stocked fridge. Those are the things you can see. But those menial housekeeping–or perhaps home-keeping–tasks are really expressions of love for one another. I know love is what keeps me going when chopping zucchini for dinner seems like a waste of time. It’s not just zucchini. It’s love for my family, making sure they have a hot dinner to come home to, a way of offering comfort to them after a long day. It doesn’t always make those unpleasant tasks pleasant, but it endows them with a sense of significance and worth.

I even think that housekeeping tasks can be acts of worship. Colossians 3:23-24 is one of my favorite verses, because it seems to apply in all circumstances: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men…it is the Lord Christ you are serving.” Wash dishes for God? Maybe God doesn’t benefit from the clean dishes…but He loves a heart that does every little thing in service to Him. Taking out the garbage can be like singing a hymn if it’s done for a God who sees what is done in secret.

So don’t give up on chopping zucchini, on picking up messes, on endless piles of laundry. Maybe the wings you wear when working that magic are less for a fairy…and more for an angel.