By Jewel Safren, LCSW
My dad, God bless him, is almost 97. He plays golf several times a week; as a matter of fact, he’s the club champ. He is a dentist, and at 80 years old he expanded his practice. He’s a powerhouse, and most of the time has more energy than me. Most of his friends are younger. A lot younger. He totally has all his marbles.
So what can you do for a dad like that? A child has a need to give something of real value to their parent, something only they can give. That’s why kids come home from kindergarten with a crayon drawing for the refrigerator: That’s their greatest treasure that they’re offering to their parents. Giving of ourselves in a real way is an act of love. My dad is so independent that it makes it hard to give to him.
But a while ago he was “a little under the weather,” and it was my privilege to help take care of him. Of course, we could have hired someone to help take care of my dad. But when I rubbed his feet, it was an act of love. When I tucked him in, it was an act of love. My dad is a very proud man. He would never admit need. I think that these acts of love were received by him because they got in under his proud, independent, I-don’t-need-anybody radar. It was very gratifying for me to be able to take care of him, and I learned that I had to get in under his radar for him to receive from me.
When I go to visit him now (of course he lives alone—mom passed about four years ago), I do some housekeeping for him. Once in awhile he has a housekeeper come in, but most of the time he does everything himself. I will admit that his housekeeping abilities have slipped somewhat. When I visit him I am totally happy to do his housework. (I should mention that I am not happy doing my own.)
It is amazing to me how happy I am just to wash his floors and clean the bathrooms. It really surprised me that I could feel so happy through the act of cleaning his toilet. When you do something from love and pure service, it totally nurtures you.
When you have something unique that only you can give, that is an amazing gift—for the one you are giving to, and for yourself. Let me just clarify that cleaning toilets is not my unique gift. The gift is that my father experiences that I am taking care of him—which is really something only I can give to him. Other people can take care of him, of course; my brothers do many things for him every day. But as his daughter, there are certain things that only I can give him while still maintaining his dignity—he’s not going to accept a pedicure from my brothers, and it certainly wouldn’t be a loving act coming from a nail salon.
So when I am driving home (I usually stay the night because I know it feels comforting to him just to have someone in the house, though of course he would never ask this of me) I feel happy, because I know I have given him something that is meaningful to him. I’m all dirty and sweaty, but I am utterly happy because I know it makes him feel cared for in a very deep way that could never be put into words. I have finally been able to give something to this amazing, strong man—something that he values. Cleaning his bathrooms is an act of pure service for me and I couldn’t be happier.
You can have all the money in the world but not feel meaning or depth in your life. Having a deep sense of truly giving of ourselves, of satisfying a deep need for someone else, is a source of real happiness. There’s something about the experience of really making a difference in someone’s life that is profoundly gratifying.
My clients regularly ask me, “What does my life mean, what is it all about?” People have to feel that their life is meaningful, that they’re doing something of value—even the most wealthy and successful people. I try to help my clients recognize that happiness doesn’t come from another pair of shoes. My own experiences have brought this home to me even more clearly, and one aspect in particular: Meaning doesn’t have to be big or showy. It doesn’t have to be the cure for cancer. I just saw a cute thing online that read, “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to help mom do the dishes.” You don’t have to quit your job and feed lepers in India; you can spend the afternoon cleaning your dad’s toilets.
Jewel Safren MSW, LSW, LCSW has over 35 years of experience in counseling, life coaching and public-speaking coaching. She has worked with people all over the US and in Europe, and runs popular personal growth workshops, webinars and classes. She is recommended by Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz; Rabbi Jonathan Rietti, B.Ed, M.Sci.; Rabbi Paysach J. Krohn and Rabbi Mordechai Becher. She lives in West Orange with her hubby and two kids, and has two married kids and two grandsons living in California. You can contact Jewel at 973-464-8556 or, if you would like to be on her mailing list or for more information, visit firstname.lastname@example.org.