Do What You Can

Today is National Good Samaritan Day! In honor of living as the Good Samaritan did, this essay is from Elisa Morgan’s book, She Did What She Could, reminding us of what we are able to do for others.

I’m standing in the shower and thinking of calling a couple that has been through a tough time with their kids. I know it would mean a lot to them. I don’t have solutions to their problems, but I know from my own experience that the companionship of someone who has “been there” is still meaningful. I decide to invite them to come for dinner. I don’t plan to pronounce a solution over their world; I know I can’t. But we can listen, my husband and I.

As I lather my hair, I think through my schedule and mentally select a few dates to double-check. I even get as far as planning a menu. There. Good.

I exit the shower, dress, and leave for my day. I check off meetings and tasks and other items on my to-do list. I drive home. The evening passes. Another day. And another. And I don’t call.

Why? No real reason. The whole matter leaves the front of my mind, and I kind of forget about it—until I run into the mom unexpectedly and I feel my face redden at the reminder of my inaction. Does she notice? I ratchet up the compassion in my face and ask some specific questions about her daughter to prove that I really have been engaged in what she’s going through, even though I’ve done nothing to demonstrate my concern.

I decide too much time has passed to act now. It would be awkward. When the faces of these family members appear in my mind, I pray for them. I wonder how the whole thing is progressing—and still I don’t act.

But what if I did what I could?

What if I didn’t just think about it; what if I actually acted? I’m not talking about “fixing” her daughter or curing her son. I’m just talking about doing what I could. Fix a meal. Give her a hug. That would be something. It would likely be enough.

I have lots of great ideas that I never follow through on. But what if I did?

What if I didn’t just do what I was obligated to do but actually invested and did something that I knew would matter? Like planning my day so that when I attend an event, I can stay for the whole thing rather than just dash in and out to make an appearance. Like hanging out at church before or after the service in order to connect with people who could use some friendship. Like listening for the real response beneath the “fine” I receive when I ask a coworker how he’s doing.

What if I didn’t take the easy road of allowing everyone else around me to invest? What if I didn’t excuse my own lack of action with the rationalization that what I could have done and didn’t was really unnecessary, repetitive, or unvalued anyway? They have enough canned food. Nobody will notice if I don’t volunteer in my child’s class this year. My twenty-five dollars won’t make a dent.

What if instead of waiting to be invited, I jumped in, took the initiative, volunteered, offered my two widow’s mites?

As I look back at my life, I can trace a pattern of requests preceding nearly all my involvements: Would you serve on the committee? Would you give your money? Would you help? A call. A question. An invitation. I tended to conclude that initiating action on my own was, well, pushy, bossy, even arrogant. Who did I think I was?

But Mary wasn’t “invited.” Strictly speaking, Jesus never said, “Hey, Mary, would you please do something especially outstanding for me right now? Something I can hold up as an example for all time to come?”

God gives all of us skills, talents, gifts, possessions, personalities. He creates us to be and to do, and to braid our being into our doing and our doing into our being. I don’t wait to be invited to “be.” Why would I have to wait to be invited to “do”?

A friend meets my eyes and offers a challenge: “What can you do that no one has ever invited you to do?” I make a list. I am amazed at the variety of very doable tasks I tally. I can put colors together in a room or an outfit. I can use word pictures to describe feelings and situations in ways that communicate clearly. I can see where efforts are headed before they get there. I can identify forces motivating relationships and negotiate through them. Most days, nobody specifically asks me to invest these abilities. Does that mean I shouldn’t bring them forward?

Perhaps I need to grab hold of the reality that what God has equipped me to do, he has invited me to do.

What if I moved beyond all these obstacles—thinking about acting but not acting, acting out of obligation, figuring someone else will act so I don’t need to, and waiting to be invited in order to act? What if I actually took a step? What if . . . I did what I could?

What gap would be filled? What need would be met? What answer would be offered? What question would be asked?

Just recently another friend prodded me to stay in a selection process for a position I felt was out of my league.

“Why?” I pushed back. “I’m not a good fit. It’s silly.”

“Because,” she said, “your presence in the process will help reveal who the right candidate is.”

Hmm. I’d never considered that.

And you. What if you did what you could? What if you didn’t just think about acting but actually followed through?

In our minds, we make it so hard, don’t we? We think we have to plan it out. We have to try harder. In reality, there are opportunities all day, every day, right in front of us. Opportunities to just do what we could. Or maybe even to stop doing something in order to create space to do what we could.

Not convinced yet? Okay. What if you didn’t do what you could? Ugh. Here comes the guilt. There are so very many “she didn’t do what she could” stories, in my life—and in yours. They point the finger of accusation at us, and we squirm in discomfort.

Nobody’s going to do life 100 percent perfectly all the time. There are plenty of moments when it makes good sense for us to punch the elevator button, descend to our cars, and go home after a grueling hospital visit. Plowing through a snowstorm to meet our newly returned, precious child is completely understandable. I don’t think anyone expects you or me to do and do and do and do what can be done, just so we won’t feel haunted or bugged or bad.

And it’s not just regular folks like you and me who don’t do what we can. The disciples didn’t stay awake in the garden of Gethsemane with Jesus—as he’d asked them to. The Bible traces story after story of God’s very messed-up people not doing what they could. Peter didn’t admit he knew Jesus in the Temple square. John Mark didn’t remain on Paul’s second missionary journey but for some reason abandoned him. Moses didn’t control his anger. David didn’t resist his attraction to Bathsheba.

So welcome to the club. We all blow it. SDWSC is not about guilt avoidance. It’s not about paying it forward or doing random acts of kindness or living a better life. It’s not about obedience just for the sake of obedience.

If I did what I could, I would be acting out of God’s love for me in a given moment when he has more for me to experience. More, because I move beyond considering to engaging. More, because I invest out of an attitude of caring rather than out of a sense of obligation. More, because I act instead of letting someone else act. More, because I initiate, knowing that because I am, I can do.

More, because I do instead of don’t.

What if I did what I could?

What would it mean if I did what I could? What if you did too?

She Did What She Could by Elisa Morgan

Most of us care. We really do. We care about poverty and injustice, about orphans and the sick. And yet, weighed down by the everyday load of bringing home a paycheck, putting food on the table, and taking care of our family demands, we question our ability to make a difference. Bombarded by one celebrity help-the-world-athon after another, we shrug our shoulders in futility and do absolutely nothing. Enter She Did What She Could. Based on the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume in Mark 14, She Did What She Could provides overwhelmed, yet service-seeking, significance-starved readers a realistic response to the seemingly unmeetable needs around us.

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