The Power of Selflessness
I am an only child and was raised by incredible parents who taught me – by example – the power of service and selflessness. They didn’t make much financially, but we made a lot of wonderful memories.
I was born and raised in the same home my dad was raised in, and my parents still call it ‘home.’ It was a small house on a half-acre lot, with two bedrooms, a kitchen, living room, and a closet-sized bathroom. Every five or ten years we ‘fixed it up’ by adding a coat of new color paint to the cement shingles. The floors were worn and cold, and the house was heated by an old box furnace with a moody pilot light that sat in the living room. Our furniture was always a hand-me-down, the crowning jewel being a couch so worn by use that the arms were simply the wood frame covered with tattered upholstery. Only occasionally did I find myself wishing for something more: a mansion with a water slide from my room into the kitchen, a home on Lake Superior, or a little more realistic, a slightly bigger home with new carpet and a garage so my parents never had to brush off their cars after the typical winter storm dropped over a foot of snow overnight. I was generally a happy kid and love all the memories made in our tiny, well-loved home provided by my parents on their very limited incomes.
When I was born, my dad gave up his university studies and took on three jobs to support us. He served my mom and I by working hard in an often thankless position, first as a janitor and school bus driver, and then as the head of maintenance for the public schools in my hometown. Additionally, he cleaned and repaired electronics for extra income and still often works overtime driving school bus to help pay the bills. I remember the former head of maintenance on the day he retired, and he looked incredibly tired and like life had chewed him up. As time has passed, budget cuts have left my dad one of the only auxiliary employees and responsible to perform both maintenance and janitorial, and in him I see that same exhaustion of heavy labor work. He spent a childhood learning from his handicapped dad’s example and a lifetime of teaching himself all he knows today in order give up his own dreams to selflessly support us. Without his income or health benefits, our family would have never survived.
My mom has two degrees: one in animal husbandry, and the second in accounting. After an accident that left her unable to work in her field with her first degree, she spent my toddler years driving two hours round-trip on weeknights with me in tow so she could complete a second degree to help our family afford to live and provide opportunities for me while in school. She worked seasonally as a tax-preparer and now works as the director of a Pathways drop-in center. A couple years ago, I asked mom what her dreams were. Her answer was that she never wanted to live in the U.P. She had faith in what her life was supposed to consist of, and she followed through with faith to selflessly be glue in our family. She has had many struggles in her lifetime, one of which was me, but she never let it stop her from showing me love, even when she didn’t feel it.
Mom and dad would have loved to have more children and I would’ve given my limbs to have brothers and sisters, but in trying to adopt we were told that our house was too small and income too low to be approved. I know there are ins and outs to the process, but on the inside we felt cheated. They had me and raised me just fine, and while our house was small, our home was great. I was furious that you had to have money to buy love. As I’ve grown older I see the reality of the situation a bit more. My bills are comparable to my parents’ at that time, my income is higher than my mom’s and only a bit lower than my dad’s, and I’ve been in my job for less than six months. I am blessed to have an income and to be using my degree, and grateful for the student loans I have, but I cannot imagine providing for two children on my income after all the bills (although I know it’s possible).
Looking back, I’m grateful we couldn’t adopt because I know my parents have blessed the lives of so many. They were involved in my youth organizations – especially Job’s Daughters – and have given so much love to hundreds of girls across the state. On a local level, they were parents to many just as I called many others “mom” and “dad.” I’ve seen my mom overcome anxiety to go out and serve others through providing meals, writing letters, and taking women out to movies and lunch just so they knew they had a friend. I’ve watched my dad get up at 11pm and drive eight hours to pick up a girl who got herself in a sticky situation at a party and just wanted to come home. I may not have any siblings by blood or law, but I have been taught to have a soft heart and eagerly accept others into my life, and have extended them love and compassion without question. Sometimes, I have felt rejected or that the overwhelming love I feel is at times too overbearing, or doesn’t translate well to others. But I wouldn’t have it any other way, and I am indebted to my parents to have raised me to be just as I am.
The Christmas season has long come to a close, and unfortunately with it many of us tend to shut down the looming spirit of charity, but still lingering in my mind’s eye are my reflections on a few specific acts of service that have been show to my family, many of which were around Christmas. I’ve wanted to share them for a few years now. While I need a lot more practice in serving others, my heart is always softened the most by seeing acts of service take place around me in the little details of life.
- The Petersons. We had two Peterson families in my home branch/ward growing up: the elder Petersons (our home teachers), and the younger Petersons (who we home taught). The elder couple was the parents/grandparents of the younger Peterson family. We lived an hour from our church building and it was rare to get a visitor, but the elder Petersons faithfully came to visit us every month. I loved them so, so much and always looked forward to their visits. I remember them talking about eternal families and telling me they were married in the Logan Utah Temple. From that point on, I was in love with that temple and wanted to see it someday. (10+ years later, on my first trip to Utah, I went out of my way and made a friend late for work just so I could see the temple grounds.) One Christmas, they were out of town but mailed me a small desktop Christmas tree and mini ornaments. Every year after that they brought me more ornaments for my tree, up until I moved away from home. Every Christmas when I put up a tree or admire a tree, I think of them and their love. I was so happy to have Brother Peterson as my Patriarch before he passed away in 2004.The younger Peterson family has also left a lasting impression on my life. They had six children and I always got to play with them when we went over to home teach. They lived in a beautiful home they built in the woods near our church building. I remember the peace and spirit I always felt in their home, whether it be talking to the kids about their family-friendly movie collection, or the gentle way they spoke to each other and treated each other (aside from occasional sibling shenanigans). Sister Peterson was one of my Sunday School teachers when I was a teenager and she was my favorite teacher. I loved learning from her and she’d always send me messages on AOL instant messenger to check in on me during the week. Their oldest daughter, Emily, was the coolest girl on the planet in my eyes, and what made her even better is that she was always accepting and including of me, even though a few years older. The memory of their family that has been pressing on my mind the most – and which has been the reason I’ve wanted to write this entire journal entry for so long – is one night during a Christmas season when the Peterson family loaded up and drove through less-than-favorable snowy conditions along blowing Lake Superior to get to our house an hour away. They completely surprised us. The eight of them, all bundled up in scarves and hats, piled on to our single couch in our tiny living room and sang us Christmas carols and brought us hot chocolate to share all together. I remember exactly how they made me – and my family – feel. I sat on the floor looking at them through tears, feeling a love beam from them stronger than any love I had felt extended to us in our life to that point. I felt important, cared for. Even as I’m writing this my eyes are starting to well up in remembering the sight of them sitting there and singing to us happily and sharing an evening together. I’m still overwhelmed with gratitude and love from that night. They did not know or may never comprehend how much their simple act of charity blessed my family.
- Bonnie Mcmorrow and gift giving. My mom has had a lifelong battle against bipolar depression and mania, and much of the battle was fought starting postpartum and through my teenage years. She was hospitalized a few times for her condition, the major ones being once when I was each in elementary, middle, and high schools. She was most often hospitalized in the winter months, usually around Christmastime. Bonnie was a fellow Girl Scout leader with mom and lived a couple blocks up the street. While our neighborhood is friendly and we all know each other and look out for the neighborhood (and in some cases, many were my dad’s neighbors when he was young in our house), it wasn’t a place of block parties and community barbecues. One Christmas, my mom was in the hospital and the house was pretty quiet with just my dad and me. There was a knock at the door at night, and I opened the door and saw Bonnie standing there with two jars of homemade minestrone soup/chili in hand. The snow silently fell behind her in the night sky and she looked like an angel masked in winter clothes. I remembered feeling the soft yarn of her knit mittens as she handed me the jars and told me she thought dad and I would like a nice meal for dinner since mom wasn’t around to cook for us. It was something incredibly simple and something we often may do for others, but her charity impacted me greatly.During a hospitalization quite a few years earlier, my mom worked at the casino. That Christmas, the casino sent over a giant box of presents for me, knowing that without her working, my Christmas would be present-free. As a result of their kindness and knowing how their generosity filled me with joy (and I’m sure my parents, taking financial burdens away and seeing me happy), in high school I asked my parents if we could stop buying each other presents, so we started adopting numerous families on the community tree instead. People are often shocked and nearly appalled when I tell them “my family doesn’t do presents.” They feel sorry for me. But the sincere joy we have felt together as a family and as individuals in our own lives of giving has brought me more joy than Barbie, Legos, tool boxes, socks, or gift cards ever could.
- The Johnsons. I could write numerous pages about this family alone. Whitney was bishop on February 13, 1982 and performed the marriage ceremony for my parents in a friend’s living room. He and his wife, Martha, always had my family under their wings. We were their home teachers, but that was irrelevant. Tallying up time spent at their home is impossible to calculate. Their youngest, Elaine, was a few years older than me became a friend of mine and I looked up to her and her example so much. I learned to play the piano at their home, just by playing on my own. I watched Whitney and Martha garden, compost, recycle, quilt, and learned how to can foods and make jam. We spent many Thanksgivings at their home and I took many Sunday afternoon naps there. During my second year of college, they let me live with them rent-free; they had done this with a long line of students for years. Sister Johnson has always shared her love for me and how proud she is of me, and Whitney always encouraged me to live to my full potential. I’m serious when I say I could pay homage to this family in a novel. The parents of 11, they have spent their lives going great lengths to serve their family and community in every way possible. They have always been a home to me.
- A Broken House. The summer before I moved to Utah, we started remodeling our roof because it was in desperate need of new shingles. In the process, our roof caved in from all the rot and decay and our house was without and covered in three feet of blown insulation. We started trying to bag things up but felt overwhelmed. I went to church that day while my parents stayed home working on the house. I knew dad would’ve felt embarrassed by it, but I spread the word about our situation and it got around in Elders Quorum. I was told a few people would come help us. I got home from church and within an hour there were 20 men and young men at our house throwing out the insulation and bagging up our possessions and bringing them to a storage unit. My best friend and her husband also came. Many hands made light work, and within just an hour our entire house was emptied. My dad stood in front of the semicircle of helpers and wept, sharing his gratitude. Instead of going home to the comfort of their families and dinner after church, these guys drove an hour to labor for us.
As I’ve been writing these experiences, small details keep coming to mind and more instances of selfless acts and true charity come rushing to me. Gratitude flows over me.
I want to revamp my life. As I spend more time single and supporting myself, it has grown easy to forget all of these beautiful experiences in my life and the things I value most. I want to spend my life focused less on owning and more on giving. Less on whining and more on thanking. Less on being hurt and more on healing. Less on feeling sorry for myself and more on soothing the sorrows of others. Less on feeling lonely and more on diminishing the loneliness of others. Reflecting on acts of selflessness shown to me gives me more meaning and purpose, and more desire to live a life of selflessness for others. I hope that in my lifetime I may touch many people the way I have been deeply moved by so many. I can’t help but think that if we all focused on this goodness, the energy in this world would increase more positively and many wrongs would be corrected. Selflessness is infectious. Feeling its power creates a new purpose within us, and our desire to serve others increases. As those around us feel our love, their desire to love all in their lives will grow. The power of selflessness can start with just one simple act of goodness performed by one person.