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Why I did a good deed every day

Date Posted: 02.01.2013

Her mother volunteered at a hospice, her stepfather helped in a hospital. Inspired by her parents, Judith O'Reilly decided to do something kind every day for a year – in the hope that it would rub off on her children.

There are mornings you wake up and think, I'll have coffee instead of tea. And there are mornings you sweep open the curtains and announce "Today I'll be a better person." I had one of those. An idea took hold in my head that I should do a good deed a day for a year because a good deed a day might make me a better person – might change the world. I had made resolutions before – to get fit, to lose weight – but never kept them. This resolution, however, had been brewing since I was a child.

I always knew I could be doing more because I was brought up that way. I was the only child of devoted parents. Actually, rewind. My natural father died of lung cancer, leaving my mother, his grief-stricken widow, holding an eight-month-old baby. My stepfather came along when I was six and took on this widow and child. Proof if you need it that he is a good man.

There is more proof, though, because while I was growing up, all plaits and freckles, in a red-brick Leeds semi, my parents were being saints, looking after my gran who lived with us till she was 93, and doing good deed after good deed. My mum volunteered as a cleaner in a hospice, then as a classroom assistant and was later chairman of the governors of an innercity primary school. (There is a generation of young people in East Leeds who know how to make buns and a sponge fish with a soapy heart, who have my mother to thank.)

My dad was the same. My mum was a part-time bank clerk while he worked as a grocer in Leeds city centre. At 7am, he'd leave the house in his trilby to slice bacon and sell cheese in Woolworths, while in his free time he visited the sick or pushed a trolley round hospital wards selling patients and visitors sweets and newspapers. Sundays being a day of rest, he'd stop pushing the trolley long enough to take busloads of the infirm and elderly to church.

My mother is 84 and my dad will be 80 soon, so their hectic days of good deedery are gone, but even when my mother lost her sight due to macular degeneration, she mourned for it, collected her white stick and promptly set up a support group to help others in the same situation. My parents were not honoured with a New Year CBE, MBE, OBE or ABC – not for what they did for the school, nor the hospice, nor the hospital, nor the elderly, nor more recently the blind. Nor do they expect to be. In their eyes, they were doing what they think anyone should do. They were doing good. Modest, patient and willing to do anything for anyone. Good people with good intentions living good lives.

But people who are good leave others with the conviction they should be doing more, and my guilt grew stronger when my own children came along. What had I done all my adult life? Earned a living. Married a man. Reared my own children. That was it, pretty much. And there was no chance that my three thought they were being brought up by a saint. Too much "Get out and close the door behind you!" if they interrupted me when I was working. Too much me and mine, and not enough time, space or energy for hospital visiting or working in a charity shop. As a working mother, I could barely keep the plates spinning as it was, how could I do anything else for anyone else?

When I announced my resolution to do a good deed every day for the whole year, my husband groaned – he thinks I complicate our lives. Most men think women complicate their lives, but this time he was probably right. I slotted good deeds into my ordinary life where I could – like stopping the car to pick up litter and there were times when my children made it easy for me. I welcomed the chance to bake buns for Comic Relief or help them collect sponsors for the Mini Great North Run. But my determination to do good for others couldn't but intrude into my own family's life – not least the day I was involved in 14 different good deeds for the dislocated, lonely, bereaved and worried, wanting coffee, conversation, advice, reassurance and consolation. Also, I am bad with numbers, while my husband is great. It made sense that he counted the money we collected in for HospiceCare North Northumberland after I set up the Jam Jar Army (in partnership with the weekly local paper the Northumberland Gazette.) Motto of the Jam Jar Army: "Eat the jam. Fill a jar with change." (By the way, you can try this one at home.) The motto should have read: "Eat the jam. Fill a jar with change. My husband will count it later."

During my year of doing good, I taught a disabled girl creative writing, mentored a teenager who had dropped out of college and looked after a friend's daughter for a couple of hours a week to give her mother respite. I bought a stranger Steradent, cleared a dead mouse from a vegetarian's mouse-trap and found not one but two lost children (I vowed to keep the third). I also steamed and tagged secondhand clothes, fed the hungry and helped raise £26,000 for charity – much of it for the local hospice and youth theatre.

I succeeded often. I reburied the ashes of a neighbour in their rightful place alongside her husband after a crematorium mix-up. Occasionally, however hard I tried, I failed: I sewed a charity elephant inside out, I didn't find a lost dog, failed to save a lamb from the broth pot and the teenager I mentored has yet to get a job in radio.

I wanted my deeds to permeate through to my kids. I wanted them to realise the requirement there is on each of us to help our fellow man, the need for compassion. But genuinely good people don't make a fuss about what they do; they often don't talk about it. I had made a resolution and announced it to family and friends. When it got tough, I realised too late that I couldn't stop because of the example it would set the children – that if things got too difficult they could always give up. I was trapped. By the end of April I was so stressed by bringing up the kids, having my elderly parents to stay, teaching a university short course on blogging, doing a good deed a day and trying to launch the Jam Jar Army that I was stretched to the limit.

There were consequences not just for my husband, but for the kids. My eldest (then 10) greeted with horror the news that his schoolmates were doing an eight-mile walk along the Northumberland coast to launch the Jam Jar Army. "Because of you, they're all going to blame me for having to go on a mega-walk in the rain," he told me with scorn. Thank God the day was sunny or he'd have disowned me.

When I made 128 jam sandwiches for a Jam Jar Army presentation at another school, only to be told by staff moments before I went into the hall, that jam sandwiches weren't a good idea, I had to bring them home and feed them to my children for two days running.

And, of course, time spent doing good was time spent away from them. My daughter, then five, cried as I boarded a train to London for a shift in a soup kitchen. Guilt swamped me when my eight-year-old son pleaded for the game of tennis I had promised but couldn't play because I was teaching my disabled pupil the critical importance between "show" and "tell", for creative writing

I glowed when the kids inquired at teatime what good deed I had done that day, but they didn't ask me very often. Last week, it was my turn to ask them if my year had inspired them to do more good deeds. I went round the table in turn. "Nope."

"No."

"Were we supposed to?" asked my younger son, wonder in his voice.

"That was a waste of time then," my eldest volunteered.

Perhaps they have seen that 365 good deeds do not a better person make. They make me someone who has done 365 good deeds. I now know that it turns out that it takes more than a habit to be a better person. I am as grumpy, impatient and flawed as ever. Perhaps it wasn't what my parents did all those years that made them such good people – just who they were.

Who knows if my year of doing good will have an effect on my children's lives. If not this year, maybe next. Or the one after that. Or when they are grown up and I'm no longer around. Maybe they will only do one good deed that they otherwise might never have done. And that one good deed will make it all worthwhile.

A Year of Doing Good by Judith O'Reilly is published by Viking Penguin on 3 January, £7.99. To order a copy for £6.39 with free UK p&p go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846

• This article was amended on 29 December 2012. The seventh par originally referred to a good dead instead of a good deed. This has been corrected
 

Source : The Guardian, 29th December 2012


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