I have often found that a good deed, when done in pursuit of a reward, rings hollow in the end no matter how well we may be compensated. There is nothing wrong with accepting praise, fame or wealth for a job well done, and there is certainly nothing wrong with applying oneself to achieve those things we find to be important measures of our accomplishments. I am a big believer that happiness is much more important than money, and when a sense of satisfaction can fill an empty stomach I’ll be the first to admit it, but the fact remains that for now we do have to have more than just our positive attitudes at the end of the day.
What I’m talking about here, though, is the approach we take to doing something that we know we should do, regardless of any gain for ourselves. It involves helping those in need, putting others ahead of ourselves when the situation calls for it, keeping promises even when they are inconvenient. In these cases I truly believe that kindness is its own reward, and when we approach such moments with ambition or selfish desires, we can truly diminish the act itself and the intense effect that it could have had on us if we had concentrated solely on what needed to be done. And yet, when we perform these acts with a selfless heart and an open spirit and are somehow unexpectedly compensated for our trouble, how much the sweeter is that reward!
This is what I found when I set out to fulfill some promises of my own, to do some good deeds that had weighed on me and called out my name and would not let me rest until I took action. My thoughts were on the souls that I had left behind, the escape that I had made not two weeks previous from a place so fearful and lonely in its whitewashed arrogance and thinly veiled deceit that letting my mind travel back there was akin to willfully imprisoning myself in the dark memories which that place had inspired. And yet, I did have promises to keep after all.
My return to IKEA was a frightful one. To set foot in the halls that had visited upon me such terror and malaise seemed foolish, an invitation to the hauntings that, though diminished, continued to plague me. To return would be to renew their strength, to make real those visions that kept me awake and give flesh to the horrors that my mind alone had been left to face. But fear in the heart is crippling, and the inability to face that fear is spelled ‘defeat’. Moreover, who is to say that the spirits of those prefabricated prisoners would not transform themselves into demons, razing the remnants of my sanity and casting me into a chamber of darkness from which even I could not escape?
But even were it not so (and though they are tortured, the gentle hearts of that place let me know that it could not be), a promise is a promise. And so I filled a water bottle, packed my lighter and stowed my knife, casting a last look at the objects in my apartment and making a promise to them as well, a promise of return that I very much hoped to keep.
There was little I could do for those left behind, far less than I would have liked, but I spent the better part of an hour retracing my steps and revisiting the helpless children of human excess whom I had encountered before. I poured water from my bottle into glasses that had never known it, drinking it then from those vessels that had been refused the caress of lips as much as they had been denied their own true purpose. I saw the liquid invigorate them as it sang down into their empty bellies and felt their hearts swell as I sipped it back.
They took and they gave, it was all they had ever wanted to do, and even though there were only a few that I could share this with, I was startled and pleased by what I saw around me. Far from the jealous stares that one might expect from the nearby empty glassware, I saw the shine of joy that could only come from a gracious heart, a look of love that said that they too had felt something that day, if only through some esoteric collective consciousness that I do not myself understand.
Moving on from this secular baptism, I turned my attention to the candles that stood humbly tall awaiting a flame that might never come. What they knew, however, and what was yet hidden from me, was a secret shame that would shock and bewilder me. As I approached a trio of slender white fellows, majestically filling a silvery candelabra, I soon discovered that they were not whole, that something vital had been taken from them. These candles, along with all the rest, I was to learn, had had their wicks trimmed down to the wax. Not even the stub of a wick-that-was remained to be seen in them, and yet they looked me straight in the eye, unblinking and proud. They were still candles, even if they would never glow with fiery light. I beheld these wickless wretches and felt my heart grow angry. Naturally I understood that this emasculation was meant to prevent just the sort of thing I had in mind for them, and yet I could not help but wonder at the cost. These fine creatures, reduced to mere statues, had been denied their right to shine.
Sickened and saddened I drew my knife, apologizing to the brave figures as I cut into their yielding frames to expose the wick underneath. One by one I shaved away their virgin wax, wax that was meant to burn, to melt, to drip, to sing its own lover’s song, wax that crumbled and fell to the floor below. That first spark of the flame, that first touch of fire that would sear and delight–they had been robbed of this experience, both wax and wick, and yet the candles that bore them did not falter, did not weep, did not hang their heads in shame. They accepted the flame gratefully and burned the brighter for it. No finer tribute could I imagine, no braver salute than to stand there and watch them carry that flame, disregarding the prospect that at any moment one of the guards would rattle the cage and demand to know what I was doing. I let them burn, I told them that I was sorry, and when I could wait no longer I softly and respectfully blew them out.
Smoke rose gently in solemn thanks, and I nodded and turned away from that place. The gesture had humbled me. What had I done? I had had so little to give, and in the end even that had been a short-lived contribution to only a few of many lonesome souls. I shuffled off, but even as I mumbled the question of whether it had made any difference, I slowly began to feel a warmth within my own soul. It began as a drop of water, as a spark of fire, but soon it had filled me up and floated the grief and discontent right out of my heart.
The smiles of countless items that lived a life as ‘displays only’ swam all around me and lifted my heavy spirits, reminding me that a simple act is yet an act. I could feel their gratitude, and again this humbled me, but it was also an inspiring reaction. The thousands of gentle creatures who I thought had gained nothing that evening reminded me of what I had observed in the empty glasses: you can touch without contact and you can move with only a gesture.
But my story is not yet finished. Even as I thought that there was nothing more that that place could do to surprise me and convince me that I had indeed fulfilled my promise and done at least some good, I was in for a bit more. I had made my way down toward the exit, through the bowels of that dread place where the items for sale lay tossed about and picked through, and I stopped to consult a list. I needed some things after all, and I moved through the aisles picking up two bowls and a small pan for heating milk. This was all I had to buy, and yet a teapot had caught my eye even as I had journeyed down into this lower realm. It had winked at me, waved its little €10 price tag and perked up its filter to say that it was just the kind of teapot I had wanted. It was right, and I added it to my things.
It was not until I had left the store, which closed soon after I had made my selections, that I considered the cost of my purchases. Something was not adding up, and so I retrieved my receipt from the bag and went through it. And yes, you’ve probably already guessed it: that little teapot was nowhere to be found on it. Somehow it had avoided detection, slipped passed the barcode reader unscanned and made its way into my bag. I laughed as the bus pulled up, boarding with a smile that inspired the driver to flash one of his own. Some might suppose that it had been simple human error, or even a malfunction of the scanner, but I knew the truth. My new friends at IKEA had decided to give back in a more concrete way than I could have ever imagined, and now whenever I brew myself a pot of tea (which is often), I think of them and smile and send warm thoughts their way. After all, it’s the least I can do.
This post is a follow up to a previous one, Fearful Symmetry, in which I describe promises made after a visit to IKEA.