Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

I found glorious failure in selfless self-care.

My pending petition for beatification looks doomed to fail, and sainthood appears unreachable. I’ll have to lower my aspirations — perhaps hands without dry cracks and a professionally groomed beard and head. I’ve not managed to meet the challenge I set myself last week, an exercise in giving. Still, neither the world nor I am worse off for the effort. In fact, we might both be just a bit better.


Each day, for five days, I wanted to give a different gift to ten people. No counting the same gift to multiple people. No counting multiple gifts to the same person. The idea was to show creativity, to demonstrate a wide range of offerings and a diverse set of receivers.

I pulled together a starter list of possible gifts. In the end, I shoe-horned my giving into only these categories for reporting purposes. The table below summarises my giving. The auditors in the audience will notice that I didn’t meet my ten-gift goal once, let alone every day. So, you can imagine the achievement chaser in me is devastated by this failure to tick the boxes as we’re so often expected (even if only by ourselves) to do.

How did I fail to even muster a smile for someone each day, falling short in three? In my defence, I was wearing a face mask on half of my outings. The Amazon delivery man certainly enjoyed the wide grin and double thumbs up I gave him in the photo to record his contact-free delivery of my parcel! But yes, for more than half the days, I can’t recall granting a smile and twinkling eye to a fellow human.

My inner competitor performed best in the dimension of expressing my love. Even with my conservative approach to scoring, I reckon I managed this every day. Phew! Now I’m feeling a little better about myself.

But then I revisit the matrix and see that I seem to be just as tight-fisted with my unjudging acceptance as I am with my toilet paper! Why am I crap at accepting the world and other people as they are? Well, I might be a bit tough in my assessment here. I’m admitting that when reality clashed with my preferences or expectations these past days, judgement and resistance bubbled up in me. What I’m working on, although the ‘score’ doesn’t show it, is noticing them, accepting them, then letting them pass. I don’t tend to get as hung up on them as I once did. So, maybe I gave the gift of only short-lived judgement….


Are those on the receiving end of my giving better off for it?

How do I measure the impact of smiling at someone, of offering a warm greeting, of saying, “Thank you,” or “I’m sorry,” or “I love you”? I’m not sure I can. But it was these gifts, along with sharing words and silent minutes of consolation, along with giving sincere compliments, along with doing my own personal work to forgive an old friend, that felt most powerful.

And how did this affect me? Of course it was weird having these potential offerings in mind and mapping them to specific people each day in order to tick boxes for the challenge. It was an artificial exercise, clearly. Still, I got a warm glow from the daily planning, and delivering the gifts amplified that.

This little project put me in touch with people I’ve missed but failed to reconnect with. It nudged me to say things I’ve been unable or unwilling to say. With the project in the back of my mind, I paid more attention to my state of mind (and heart) as I spoke and acted. What were my assumptions? What conditions was I imposing?

One thing came through clearly during the challenge: reaching out to share overdue words or re-establish connection is just the beginning. There’s a natural follow-up where the real value lies. Some people I contacted needed my help in one way or other. Others offered me, whether they realised it or not, something important.

What now?

So, I found a tonic in thinking of others and what simple things I could offer them. Even if the ‘high’ was not enough to shield me from the ups and downs of CoronaLife, the project engaged my mind, heart and hands when I might otherwise have been idle and self-absorbed. My connection with people from different phases of my life has improved. Finally, I’ve faced a few truths in myself through action that have eluded years of philosophising self-scrutiny.

What happens now? Well, I’ve jump-started a few relationships that had been hibernating. I’m looking to keep those going. I’ve also found I can tune in more to how I’m encountering people as I go about my routine errands and walks. I’ll be smiling, greeting, complimenting and wishing well in days and weeks to come. Finally, this experience has made it more likely that, sitting bored, down or anxious, I’ll think of what small treat I can offer someone else rather than turning inward to stew in my own mental broth!

I didn’t give as much as I aimed to, but if this is what failure feels like, I don’t need perfection.

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