It can be rather difficult to see someone else reap rewards and accolades. I was reminded of that sentiment just the other day, when I attended the retirement of an old colleague of mine, Larry Kepley, who was retiring from the Charlotte Fire Department after thirty years of dedicated service. As I mingled about the station, I witnessed many people approach Larry to wish him well in his next phase of life. Almost invariably, each person had a story to share with him about either some extreme call they had run together or some shenanigans in which they had been cohorts. Naturally, it was the latter that drew me in the most.
One of the stories reminded me of an instance when I had been assigned to a particular engine company. Of the three shifts for that company, my shift was the most loathed; not by the community or department, mind you, but by the other two shifts. Of all the departmental citations that adorned a wall of the station, most were assigned to my shift. Some of them were for meritorious acts, but those were pretty much equaled by the other two shifts. What caused the imbalance was that my shift, A-Shift, had several more citations for our efforts above and beyond our normal duties. We were almost constantly involved in community education events, such as teaching Citizen CPR to scores of churches and civic groups. But we were also the shift that people in the community knew they could turn to for non-emergent help, like opening locked cars, moving heavy furniture and the occasional appearance at a child’s birthday party.
Poor B-Shift; they did not have any certificates of civic recognition on the wall. You could feel their level of envy as we, or C-Shift, posted another document of good will. B-Shift, like all companies, was dedicated to doing their best when the alarm struck—and did so with excellence, but they never had much motivation to do more than what was expected of them in those moments in between. Finally, they could no longer endure being the least recognized. They made up their mind to abandon their ethic of being for emergency deployment only.
It was on their very next shift that B-Shift was presented with an opportunity to go above and beyond the call of duty. The phone rang and a neighbor called and asked for them to get her cat down from a tree. Their normal response would be to ask if she had ever seen a cat skeleton in a tree, indicating that a cat will come down eventually. But this time they decided to throw caution to the wind and help the lady with her predicament. It did not take much effort to raise the ladder and for one of the firefighters to climb up and execute the feline retrieval service. Once the equipment was put away, the grateful neighbor insisted that her heroes come in and share her delicious German chocolate cake, for which she was famed. They delighted in their new-found recognition and were probably dreaming of gloating a bit when they handed off the station to my shift the next morning. As they were graciously thanked again for their service, they boarded the engine with a sense of pride and satisfaction and then ran over the cat.
A couple of millennia ago, a man named Paul wrote in a letter to the church in Galatia these words, “Be sure to do what you should, for then you will enjoy the personal satisfaction of having done your work well, and you won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else” (Galatians 6.4 NLT). Each time I read Paul admonition, I think back many years to that incident with B-Shift. I smile at the irony, but also recognize that it could have just as easily been my shift to suffer from that unfortunate mishap. I am also convicted to remember that when I do something admirable, my intentions need to be for the sake of doing good and not for accolades. If nothing else, a cat may thank me.