When I was a young boy, perhaps 8 or 9, I regularly used to go to my home village's recreation ground, which we referred to as 'The Rec'. This was a large green space which included football and cricket pitches, a kids' playground and a number of grass tennis courts. In the days before 24 hour news, there was no paranoid media propaganda frightening parents into keeping their children within sight at all times. Despite my young age and the fact that The Rec was over a mile away from my house, I was allowed to ride my bike there on my own whenever I felt like it. I would often find some school friends there who had done the same and we would spend hours enjoying ourselves and getting plenty of exercise.
On one such occasion, however, I arrived to find that none of my friends were at The Rec, and so I was a little bored and wondering what I could do on my own. After exhausting my enthusiam for swinging, climbing, sliding and going round and round, I wandered over to the tennis courts where several matches were taking place. The courts were surrounded by a high wire fence, but despite this, the occasional wayward shot would go over it and into the trees beyond. There was only one gate, and it was a bit of a long trek round to retrieve balls that had gone over the fence, so most players would make sure they brought plenty of spares and collect the wayward balls after their game ended.
As I had nothing better to do, I started watching the tennis matches through the wire fence. After a short while, one of the players skied a forehand and it went over the fence, landing not too far away from where I was standing. I went to retrieve the ball, and threw it back over the fence to the two players it belonged to, receiving their smiles and thanks. A short while later, this happened again and once again I retrieved the ball for the grateful couple. I was enjoying my newly found usefulness and felt a sense of joy at being able to help in this simple way. On the second occasion, I noticed another ball in the trees, so after I had thrown both balls back over the fence, I decided to search around further. Eventually I managed to find five more balls.
As I was walking back to the part of the fence behind the court on which the couple were playing, I noticed that one of them hit another wayward shot. This time, instead of going over the fence, it went way off to the side and landed in the little dip which was next to the fence at the back of the next tennis court, where another couple were playing. I kept my eye on the ball and went over to where it had landed. I knew that I could reach my hand under the wire fence, retrieve the ball and return it to the couple to whom it belonged.
As I was reaching under the fence, the woman who was playing at that end of the court where it had landed turned and noticed me.
"Hey!" She shouted with a very stern look on her face. "What do you think you're doing?" She came marching over and before I could summon up the courage to defend myself, with frightening anger she asked me to show her what else I had. By this point I was too frightened to say anything to her, so I just showed her the five balls I had collected from amongst the trees and she assumed the worst. Then came a further angry tirade aimed at making me feel terribly ashamed of what I had done. Even though I knew I had done nothing wrong, I was devastated. I just dropped all the balls next to the fence and walked away from the tennis courts, tears welling up in my eyes.
This incident affected me greatly. The huge sense of injustice stayed with me and very probably put me off helping people without wanting anything in return for many years to come. But as I look back, I can now see that it taught me a valuable lesson. Today I often spend a portion of my time trying to help other people without asking for something in return, often without even letting them know it was me who helped. I do not do this because I am some wonderful altruistic saint, but because it is probably the best way I know to make myself happy. I quite often find that people become suspicious and think that I must have some kind of ulterior motive. Some people just cannot believe that there are people in the world who will help others just because they like it.
When this happens, the lesson I learned back at the tennis court is invaluable. We cannot allow ourselves to be judged by other people. Other people do not have our perspective and therefore can be wrong, or like the lady on the second tennis court, very wrong. No doubt she thought she was right. She thought she had caught a young thief red handed and was righteously telling him what she thought of him. Although I knew she was dead wrong, the vehemence of her voice and her words affected me for a long time. Now I know that it is crucial to be my own judge and to disregard the opinions of others, be they good or bad, because I know just how mistaken they can be and the effect that listening to them can have.
I make my own decisions about what I choose to do. I know within myself whether my choices are good or bad choices for me. Good choices feel good. Bad choices feel bad. It is very very simple. Others' opinions cloud this beautiful simplicity and I now know that it is always best to completely disregard them.
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