John is one of those neighbors. You love the guy. You’re so glad you know him. You just wish he didn’t live next door.
Not because he’s unpleasant or anything. He’s the nicest guy in the world. But he is so meticulous in the way he maintains his yard and garden that he makes everyone else on the block look like a bunch of slackers.
Yeah, he’s that guy. Edward Scissorhands, only without the whole Johnny Depp thing.
Or the scissors thing.
But boy, that guy can trim hedges!
The other day I noticed John was pulling weeds from his carefully prepared and immaculately groomed garden. Normally, this wouldn’t surprise me. Even John gets a weed now and then — although the life expectancy of a weed in John’s garden is about the same as a tube of Clearasil on prom night. But then I remembered that John and his wife, Carol, are leaving the hemisphere to do some missionary work for their church, and they’ll be gone long before his garden will be ready for harvest. Their granddaughter and her family will be moving in to take care of the house while they are gone — which means they will benefit from John’s labor.
But not John.
In fairness, I should point out that I’m not a big fan of weeding — as if anybody actually is. When I was growing up, weeding was the assignment Dad gave me when he was mad at me — which was most of the summer, every summer. Consequently, I tend not to weed in my garden until the weeds have wrapped their fuzzy green tentacles around the respective throats of my flowers and vegetables and are choking the chlorophyll out of them. So I couldn’t understand why John would be weeding a garden from which he will never receive a morsel of sustenance.
“Well, someone is going to enjoy it,” he said as he sent a strand of morning glory vine to perennial purgatory. “It doesn’t have to be me.”
John’s attitude — “It doesn’t have to be me” — reminded me of the pioneers of the American West, who were known to plant gardens along the trail to be harvested by others who came along months later. Evidently they understood, as John does, that the work we do in life doesn’t always have to be about us. Sometimes we do stuff that benefits others — even people we don’t know — when we don’t stand to benefit in any possible way.
I used to work with a man who exerted an enormous amount of creative energy in planning and coordinating the construction of a controversial road in a part of our state that he rarely, if ever, traveled. I used to tell him that he was investing so much time and effort in this project that he would have to come back and actually drive the road from time to time. He would always smile and shake his head, citing words to what he said was an old proverb: “Who travels the road best makes it smoother for others.”
I’m not vouching for the authenticity of that proverb, but something tells me John would agree with the sentiment. The fact is, every day we travel roads that are there because others built them, and we harvest the fruit that others planted for our use. The road to civil rights was paved by a lot of people who weren’t able to travel it all the way to the end. The seeds of modern technology were sowed by innovative thinkers who could only dream about the bounteous technological harvest we now enjoy. The world in which we live is a better place because of people who, like John, understand that “it doesn’t have to be me.”
Which makes me wonder: Am I making any roads smoother for those who follow me? Have I planted anything worth harvesting by those who come after me? It’s human nature, I think, to want to leave our mark on the world.
And not just for being … you know … one of those neighbors.
To read more by Joseph B. Walker please go to www.josephbwalker.com.