I know I didn’t have to, But I can

I’ve got this neighbor. He’s a really good guy – incredibly helpful and always willing to lend a hand. And the best thing is that he has access to every tool known to mankind. Chainsaws, blowers, and riding mowers are every day fare. Weekends can be a kind of adventure as I try to identify engine sounds. In the past, there were Saturdays when I was disappointed by a pressure washer, but I’ve got that one down now.

Then there are times… glorious mornings when my man-heart races at the roar of a stump grinder or 12” chipper firing up next door. Such siren purrs start a race for boots and gloves as I rush to answer the call of the motor. If we lived in a neighborhood I would probably have to stand in line behind others entranced by the intoxicating smells of gas, dirt, and shredded wood. But we live off in the woods where there aren’t other suiters. There is, however, plenty of nature yearning to be uprooted.

Last Saturday I heard a familiar hum. Autumn brings the aerator and with its little plugs of dirt littering the lawn. My kids reminisce about the dirt wars we used to have and I enjoy the look of confusion on Winston’s face as he tries to sort out the number of other dogs it took to create that much poop. He always sniffs a few and lays down in the pine straw defeated.

By the time I got outside, my neighbor was already rolling in my yard on the aerator. This thing was awesome – a riding aerator! I had never seen one. The last model I used was like wrestling a bear. By the time I was done my arms were both out of the socket and I slept for three days. Anyway, he cruised up beside me, moved the throttle to idle, and pushed up his hearing protection.

“Thanks,” I said, not wanting to sound too disappointed that I didn’t get a turn. He figured out long ago that it is easier to just do it than to try to explain it to me. I love hard work but seem to be allergic to 2-cycle engines. I usually can’t get them started and if I do get lucky, I can’t keep them running. Most of the time, I flood the engine so badly that I have to wait an hour or so to try again.

“No problem,” he answered. “I got plenty of seed, too.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” I said.

“I know I didn’t have to, but I can.”

Then he put his hearing protection back on and was gone, churning up earth in his wake while I stood considering his words: I know I didn’t have to, but I can.

What would the world be like if more people lived such a generous philosophy?


You didn’t have to buy that cup of coffee.

You didn’t have to sit with me.

You didn’t have to change my flat tire.

You didn’t have to clean up after me.

You didn’t have to make room, I can stay in a hotel.

You didn’t have to stay up all night when I was hurting.

You didn’t have to come visit.

I know I didn’t have to, but I can.


I’m lucky to have a neighbor who has a seemingly infinite supply of lawn equipment paired with that outlook on life. I’m also lucky that he introduced me to his sister-in-law many years ago and stood next to me as we said our vows.

Since Saturday, I’ve wondered what sometimes stands between me and generosity. I don’t hoard money but I do tend to be stingy with my time. I think that is common with most people. In this busy world, it typically isn’t the desire to do good we lack; we just won’t sacrifice the time to act. Time is precious and I’ve found through the actions of others during the grief of the past three years that it is the most lavish component to generosity.

The next time I must choose to be kind or be late, I will try to remember my neighbor’s words… I know I didn’t have to, but I can. 

11 thoughts on “I know I didn’t have to, But I can

  1. Often when you write you connect with something deeper than I can put into words. It is more than … (can’t help myself!).

    But know this Mark – you connect with “the me I want to be” and find excuses not to be (almost all of the time). You take away my excuses. Thank you.

  2. I know myself how much it means when someone does something that they don’t have to but still does because they want to.
    So when I talked to a person I haven’t known for long but feel very close to, he’s sacrificed his own life and time to keep our deeply loved friend alive when the psychiatric health care has been failing, I asked him if there’s anything he particularly needs or wants for Christmas he responded that he never gets stuff for Christmas(he’s literally from the other side of the globe and has no family here since his wife died from cancer) so it’s not something he’s thought about.
    When he said “you don’t have to do that” I answered “I don’t give a -beep- what I have to do, I’m going to do what I want to do”.
    If I can make someone a tiny bit happier or less sad, then I’m going to try to do that, no matter if it’s Christmas or not.

    I think that if there’s anything I’ve learned from losing someone far too early, it’s that if I can make any small difference for someone who’s hurting then I damn going to try.
    Because I know that if I was the recipient I would be touched.

    Enough rambling..

    1. That is an excellent point. Reaching out to others through writing has been the most soothing balm. It’s like I’ve been collecting souls who hurt like me. We’re in this messy world together. Does that make sense?

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