Years ago, I was speaking with a former neighbor of mine who was a high functioning autistic young man. We’ll call him Danny. We were both about to begin mowing our respective lawns, he with a push mower and me with my riding mower. Danny asked if his yard could be mowed with a riding mower.
We live at the foot of a mountain, so both our yards are sloped, in some areas almost unwalkable. I explained that due to the steep slope in his yard, it wouldn’t be safe to use the riding mower (there was some truth to that, but I have to admit I was being lazy and hoping he wasn’t going to ask me for a favor – I feared that’s where he was heading with the conversation). Danny then pointed to an especially steep part of my yard and asked if I was able to mow that. I said, “No, I’ll have to come back later and hit that with the trimmer.”
We then commenced our work and both finished about the same time. As I headed to the steep part of my yard with the trimmer, I noticed it had already been cut. I turned to Danny, who was still in his yard, and curiously asked, “Did you cut this?”
He shrugged his shoulders and replied nonchalantly, “You said you can’t cut steep areas with your mower. I can, so I cut it.” To him, it was the most logical and rational thing to do. I thanked him, but could tell he did not think anything of it, while my own conscience was stinging me for my laziness.
In his story The Wise Woman, George MacDonald taught that pride often comes from a lack of practicing virtue. When we finally start doing good works, we pat ourselves on the back and think quite highly of ourselves. MacDonald writes,
She had been doing her duty, and had in consequence begun again to think herself Somebody. However strange it may well seem, to do one’s duty will make any one conceited who only does it sometimes.
Those who do it always would as soon think of being conceited of eating their dinner as of doing their duty. What honest boy would pride himself on not picking pockets? A thief who was trying to reform would. To be conceited of doing one’s duty is then a sign of how little one does it, and how little one sees what a contemptible thing it is not to do it…Until our duty becomes to us common as breathing, we are poor creatures.
When Danny mowed my patch of steep yard, I was quite touched. It seemed significant to me. But for him, it was as common a thing to do as breathing. Looking out for his neighbor was just something that he naturally did without congratulating himself. It reminds me of the parable Jesus spoke:
And which of you, having a servant plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and sit down to eat’? But will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare something for my supper, and gird yourself and serve me till I have eaten and drunk, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I think not.
So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ [Luke 17:7-10]