“I can see I’m at the right house,” the man said when I answered the doorbell wearing a winter jacket and scarf.

Our furnace went out last week, on the day the temperature was expected to get down to fifteen below zero. The good news is that a repairman was able to come over fairly quickly, and he spotted the problem immediately. The bad news is that fixing it required a part he didn’t have, and couldn’t locate anywhere in the area. It had to be ordered, and wouldn’t be available until the next day.

It was 58 degrees in the house that night, so instead of taking layers of clothing off as I got ready for bed, I put several more on. By morning, the inside temperature was 50 degrees, so after a very quick shower I got dressed not just in my warmest clothes, but in a jacket and scarf as well. Then I waited for the part to be delivered, and for the repairman to come back and install it. Once he did and the furnace was working again, it took about an hour for the house to heat up enough that I was able to take off my coat and scarf, and another hour until my nose didn’t feel cold when I touched it.

As you might guess, I didn’t sleep very well the night the furnace was out. This was partly because of how cold it was, and partly because of all the clothing I was wearing, which made it difficult to get comfortable enough to sleep.

Going through all of this suddenly reminded me of a Homeless Awareness Event my daughter and I took part in years ago through her youth group at church. It was during a cold weekend in April, rather than a frigid night in January, but it was still a chilling experience in more ways than one.

The participants – kids and chaperones alike – had to bring their own boxes to sleep in, as well as one blanket each and as much clothing as they were willing to wear or carry around all weekend. Once we got up and got moving the next day, anything left in our boxes was confiscated till the end of the weekend, reminding us that it would have been stolen in real life.

What I remember most about that weekend is how impossible it was to get warm, and how difficult it was to get to sleep. I also remember a fleeting thought that if I actually did fall asleep, I might not wake up in the morning. Instead I might die from the cold – right there on the church lawn, in full view of my car in the parking lot and with a group of kids and other adults in their own boxes and blankets all around me.

There was little – if any – real danger, and I wasn’t truly worried that I would die of cold during the night. Still, the fact that it even crossed my mind was unsettling, and I reminded myself that once the weekend was over I would be back in my own warm bed, with sturdy walls around me and a roof over my head.

I haven’t thought about that weekend in a long time, but it all came back to me when our furnace went out last week. And as difficult and uncomfortable as the situation was, I knew it was only temporary and I was in no real danger from the cold. Unlike those who really are homeless. Or who aren’t able to simply call a repairman and get their problems fixed.

Going through something like this every so often does three things. It reminds us of how fortunate we really are and of the things we usually take for granted. It reminds us that there are people who don’t live with the same comfort, safety, and conveniences that we have. And it reminds us that we have the means to do something about this if we so choose.

Whenever we use our time, talents, and resources to help those in need, we get a much warmer feeling than we do by simply turning the heat up on the furnace.  And for ourselves as well as for the people we’re helping, that’s a whole lot better than being left out in the cold.

The column “Find Your Buried Treasure” appears weekly in the Chanhassen (MN) Villager. This column was published on January 31, 2013.
©Betty Liedtke, 2013

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