Tales of the Office: Earn and Burn

§  We are about to begin another holiday season, where love, compassion and generosity of spirit should reign supreme. Well, just call me Ebeneezer!  §

I am an unsympathetic person, and terribly judgmental.  I’ve heard people tell me, quite without irony, that I am caring and kind and empathetic.  I shake my head in wonder.  They obviously don’t know me even half as well as I know myself!

As a perfect example of my lack of empathy, I recall the ungenerous, hypercritical attitude I held toward certain coworkers during my years working at an office.  These were the people who, the very minute they accumulated their monthly stipend of sick, vacation or personal time, were nowhere to be found, having taken a day off using the leave they’d just accrued.  Several of my coworkers demonstrated this behavior, but one in particular was the unrivalled Queen of what we termed “Earn and Burn”.  Each time she earned a day’s leave she bailed, leaving the work on her desk to be covered by her more responsible coworkers.

Oddly enough, had she been (as some of the Earn and Burners were forced to do) using her earned leave time so quickly for desperate need–her own or loved ones’ chronic illnesses; the needs of small children; other ordinary life crises, such as waiting on dilatory repairmen–well, had that been the case, my minimal amount of available empathy would have been decidedly engaged.  But it was not.  The Queen took each of her days for idle recreation.   Watching her coworkers struggle to deal with the problems caused by her constant absences, I fumed. There was nothing I could do about the situation so long as those in authority allowed her to get by with the behavior.  We all suspected that she must have known where some bodies were buried, for her supervisors, wimps to a man and a woman, turned a blind eye to her behavior. It appeared there were no consequences to her irresponsibility, for the Queen was never disciplined…at least not by the office.

The Universe, though—the Universe apparently had other ideas.

The Queen got sick.  Major, real, big time sick: weeks of hospitalization and further weeks of recovery.  And she had no leave time available to use.  She’d burned through all of it.

Oh, she was eligible for short-term disability leave, and it was granted.  But that essentially meant only that she would have a job waiting, if and when she recovered.  Since she had no leave time, her days off were all unpaid.

Our office, as it always did, pulled together to send get-well cards and a bouquet of flowers; some of the staff visited her at the hospital.  The work on her desk was divvied up among the other employees in her unit so she would not return to an avalanche of paperwork.  A cadre of staff members, perhaps hoping to be heard by those in authority,  complained loudly because our employer did not allow those with excess accumulated leave time to donate it to a coworker in need. 

Unsympathetic jerk that I am, I said not a word.  In point of fact, I had so much accumulated leave time that I could have taken off a good two months without losing a single cent of my salary.  But even if a donation policy had been in place, I wouldn’t have offered up so much as one lousy little hour to mitigate our coworker’s situation.  Her lack of available leave time was no one’s fault but her own, and I wouldn’t have tossed her a rope, let alone bent down to offer a hand helping her out of the hole she’d dug herself into. I am not so evil that I gloated over her troubles, but I certainly didn’t shed a tear over them, either.

Eventually, I was approached by several coworkers who felt we should take up a collection to assist the Queen financially during her time of desperate need.  As the Administrative Assistant for the office, this was my function; would I arrange it?  I smiled through very unsympathetic gritted teeth and agreed.

The staff came through marvelously, anteing up several hundred dollars.  I created a spreadsheet to track the contributions, sent bulletins out to the staff as the total increased, and finally arranged for two employees to deliver the cash in a card signed by everyone.

But my own contribution was decidedly ungenerous, unlike the large amounts happily tossed into the till by my coworkers.

I am, as I said, both lacking in empathy and terribly judgmental. Looking back through the lens of time to that office situation, I believe that, occasionally, that’s okay.  There are times when compassion, empathy and walking a mile in another’s moccasins are genuinely the order of the day.  But there are other times when one just has to put on the Tough Love mask and say, “Hey, you did this to yourself.” 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “Tales of the Office: Under the Weather”, which can be found in the Archives from July 15, 2020.

Charity Begins

  True charity, true giving,  requires so much more of us than just sending a check or pulling used clothes from a closet. 

I clearly remember when I became aware of the need and responsibility to alleviate poverty and to give of my own resources: I was a preteen when our class at school decided to sponsor a needy family for Christmas. I will never forget the look on the face of the mother of that little family as we children and our teacher trooped in, singing carols and carrying boxes of food and wrapped gifts into a bare, cold house. “Well, I got them a tree,” she told us, her voice breaking, “but I didn’t know if there would be anything under it.” That day brought home to me, as nothing else could have done, how very blessed I was—rich, in fact—and the responsibility of sharing my blessings.

The lesson stayed with me, right up to adulthood. Even in those years when I barely had enough money to meet my bills, I saved a small—sometimes tiny– amount to contribute to charitable causes. During some years, that meant no more than my leftover pocket change dropped into a jar at the end of the week, and finally wrapped and rolled at year’s end.  The coin rolls were taken to the bank and deposited into my account before being distributed by check to a charity I deemed important. That, and buying a few small gifts for a needy child from an ‘Angel Tree’ at the holiday season, comprised my charitable giving during the lean years of my life.

As my income rose, so did my distributions. I was never one to believe in tithing to a single organization, but instead selected multiple causes in which I believed and contributed my funds there: environmental foundations, disaster relief, animal shelters, children’s charities. I gave as I felt moved, or the need arose. I donated my used goods and clothing to charity thrift shops, and purchased from them, as well, so that my money could do more for needy community. When someone at the office lost a loved one, I always offered a memorial contribution from coworkers as an option to the traditional and wasteful flowers; when my own mother passed away, Dad and I did the same, requesting contributions to her favorite animal shelter. Then we packed up her lovely clothing and shoes, and I contacted a local women’s shelter so we could contribute the items where they were most needed.

Despite my personal altruism, I was often in trouble during my working years for my refusal to participate in the office-sanctioned big-name charitable concern. A few times, knowing that my job hung by a thread, anyway, I committed to the bare-bones minimum of donating a dollar a week to the giant organization. But I gritted my teeth as I did so, suspecting that what I was actually subsidizing was some CEO’s high roller lifestyle. Nevertheless, when asked in later years to arrange office-wide silent auctions from coworkers’ donated goods, with the proceeds going to the big-name charity, I did so willingly, telling myself that at least people were receiving something tangible in return for their money.

But something happened, as time has sped by, to alter my preteen comprehension of the value of giving. Slowly but inevitably I’ve learned (and it would be a sad thing if we did not spend our lifetimes growing and learning) to fully grasp the meaning of the old maxim, “Charity begins at home”. True charity, true giving, I have finally come to understand, requires so much more of us than just sending a check or pulling used clothes from a closet.

True charity is the kindness that visits, not just to bring a casserole, but to spend time with a sick friend; to care for their pets and do their household chores.  It feeds the homeless, hungry animal that arrives on the porch, and finds the poor creature a home. Genuine altruism invites the lonely person without family to a holiday dinner, or cancels long-anticipated plans when another’s emergency arises and help is needed. It contributes time and compassion, sitting in the hospital room with family members as they deal with the anguish of a loved one’s illness. True charity looks at the neighbor’s overgrown, unmowed lawn and doesn’t register a complaint with the homeowner’s association, but stops by to find out if sickness or crisis has prevented them from caring for their home, and offers help. Authentic generosity arrives on the doorstep with concrete ways to help rather than muttering the worn-out and unmeant platitude, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do”. It cleans the house, drives the children to their activities, does the laundry, or simply sits with the person in pain. True charity uses the funds that would have gone to one of those hundreds of foundations, and instead buys groceries or pays a bill for friends or family members who are down on their luck.

I will never stop providing funds to the causes in which I wholeheartedly believe. But, although it has taken a lifetime, I’ve learned, finally, to give in the ways that really matter