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Just got back from spending the day at a charity project helping a needy homeowner make her place dryer, safer and warmer. So as always happens, my husband and I, and the kids, all came home enriched by the experience.

As we said on the ride home in the car, we put ourselves in front of others who told us we could do things we were sure we could not. Rarely do I find occasions to stand at the top of a twelve-foot ladder leaning against the side of a house, with a crowbar in hand, on an 18 degree January morning, discovering that leverage is surprisingly different up there. Rarely do I take on the project of hacking out old pipes and plugging the resulting hole with insulation and then fashioning out of shims an insert to fill the gap. Besides this I discover that in the first few minutes of meeting the homeowner I have engaged her in a discussion of her dreams for the future, and of her love of the many fabrics she collects by the yard even though she does not know how to sew. And I see that I cannot ignore one of the teenager volunteers there because he has said he is taking a semester off from school to discover which major to pursue. This is precisely the juncture in my own life, and in my father’s life, and in my mother’s life, and in my sister’s life, and in plenty of other lives I know, where the path leading to the greater happiness was not recognized, and I must discuss this with him. I must tell him what I know and be sure to leave that with him, no matter what he thinks of me, or I cannot sleep tonight.

Likewise, my husband watched, inspired, as others used tools in ways he’d never seen before. And the girls who had grumbled at getting up early on a Saturday, and at the prospect of a whole day of work, claimed to have had FUN spackling and sanding an upstairs bedroom with a welcoming group of volunteers.

It is hard to measure what we get when we help others because invariably it seems we help ourselves too. It is by far the best thing I know to do to get out of myself when I think I have it bad. And that is why we have taken our children to do this ever since they could assist in ripping out linoleum flooring, or drag a paintbrush across trim. We gain physical skills, self-awareness, and perspective on others. Take your kids, and go visit someone else’s life for a minute, if you can.