While enjoying a few solitary moments over lunch today at a chilly, basement table in a local sandwich and pastry shop, a cloudy childhood memory surfaced. The complete details escape me, for I cannot remember the exact time, or even the place.
I was helping my grandfather cut the lawn, and the mower engine had mysteriously malfunctioned before the job was complete. Never one to leave a job half-done, my grandfather quickly borrowed the neighbor’s mower so we could complete our chore. The yellow mower, although a newer model than our broken machine, did not appear well maintained. Grass clippings clogged its plastic discharge chute, and bits of leaves choked the engine’s air filter. Despite its condition of neglect, one pull of the starter cord brought it sputtering to life and allowed us to finish our job.
After completing the last swath of uncut lawn, I stopped the engine and began to push the mower back toward the neighbor’s garage. My grandfather stopped me in my tracks, ordered me back to his garage and instructed me to clean every last nook of the mower–engine, blade, deck and all. By the time I finished, the neighbor’s mower looked brand new, and I had learned one of the many life lessons my grandfather gave me: Whenever you borrow something, return it in better condition than it arrived.
As I sat there today, more than 25 years after that summer afternoon, it struck me that perhaps my grandfather’s lesson could serve as my golden rule of life. While the traditional Golden Rule impels us to treat others as we would have them treat us, the return it better rule teaches us to ensure that the individual lives we enter are better off upon our exit. When we interact with others, from the grocery store clerk to our closest, lifelong friend, we are taking their time and attention and borrowing their spirit. If we would make the effort to return their lawnmower improved, can’t we at least do the same for their spirit?