You know that bumper sticker exhorting you to commit “random acts of kindness”?
Living where I do, I see it all the time.
It’s on a lot of really nice environmentally friendly cars.
And apparently driving that nice, new, made from non-recycled materials car is their one act of random kindness.
I have watched “kindness car” after “kindness car” ignore homeless person after homeless person at intersection after intersection.
(Sort of like WAY back during the 2000 election when Boulder was filled with gas guzzling SUVs sporting “Vote Nader” bumper stickers. Um… Nader was on the green ticket… Nothing green about that road/gas hog…)
On one hand – I get it.
I mean, these days, who has cash in their wallet?
Beyond that, I’ve heard the following concerns -
“But he/she will just buy booze with it.”
“Their bad choices aren’t my responsibility.” (As if we aren’t all one “downsize” away from having to beg someone for something. Whether we do it on a street corner or LinkedIn, is it really that different?)
“It’s sad, but it’s not like my dollar is really going to help.”
“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish…”
About a year and a half ago I read a blog post from a fellow redhead that really opened my mind and my heart on this issue.
I admit, I rarely have cash beyond some pocket change – and I feel like an ass offering someone a handful of sticky, dirty random change that might add up to 48 cents on a good day… I drive past “those people” and see them and wish I could help, but – I didn’t really know how.
I didn’t believe my handful of dirty change was helping. Wasn’t it just fueling their dependency?
And it’s not like I had time to stop and ask what they really needed. I don’t have a job to offer them, or money for vocational training to hand out or a spare apartment complex sitting empty.
Erika’s post meshed with a coffee table book I had a decade or so ago – all photographs of homeless people along with a one page telling of their story – who they were, and how they came to be on the streets. It made them human.
I realized that ultimately, that is what prevents so many of us from rolling down our window, popping our own bubble and offering help -
We don’t want to see these people as humans, because that scares us. If they’re human too, well, then some day that could be us.
“Oh, no. I would NEVER end up on the street. I have too much pride, support, skills, intelligence…”
Having read the stories of people who ended up living on the street, let me tell you, the majority of them started out thinking those same things. They had kids, spouses, families, good jobs. And then… They didn’t.
When the memory of that book met Erica’s post, it created a giant “DUH!” moment in my mind.
Erika’s post clicked into place, it offered a simple, small act that, while it wouldn’t turn anyone’s life around, would make a difference.
The next time I went to the store I bought an extra box of good, healthy granola bars.
I tossed them in the back seat of my car.
Then, I carried on.
It was weird, I’d been seeing homeless, hungry people all over. As soon as that box of granola bars landed in my back seat, it was like they all went on vacation.
A couple of weeks later, they began popping up in my path again.
If my kids were in the car with me, I would have them roll down the window and offer a couple of the granola bars to the person holding the sign.
Once we saw an entire family and gave them the whole box.
If I’m alone, I do the honors.
I’ve learned to buy granola bars without chocolate so that people can safely share them with their dogs.
(For the record, I used to think homeless people with dogs were idiot jerks – “You can’t even take care of yourself, what right do you have to a pet?” Then I did the unthinkable… I sat down and talked to a few homeless people about it. I didn’t accuse them of being idiot jerks, I just started asking questions. I learned that dogs double as companions/friends and as protectors. It’s a hard life out there. There’s a lot of hate – friends are needed to keep going. And, there’s a lot of hate – protectors are needed to stay alive. Bonus, in the winter, you and your dog can share heat.)
In the year or so that my kids and I have been doing this, no one has ever refused the granola bar or turned up their nose at the flavor that week.
They have all thanked us. Their words thank us for the food, their eyes thank us for seeing them, for recognizing them, for letting them in.
A few have had good conversations with my kids about school, favorite books, favorite subjects.
Are we changing these people’s lives? Are we really helping them?
I don’t know, probably not. In truth, all we’re probably doing is guaranteeing one more day without starvation. But… that still counts for something, after all, you can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you’re too hungry to stand.
Here’s what I do know – I know that they are helping me, and my kids.
This small act has changed me. It has helped me expand my tribe to include even more people. It has helped me to see the common humanity that binds us all together, even the ones who are down on their luck. It has helped me lower my barriers, and expand my love.
It has helped me slow down, judge less and be more open.
Every time my girls and I get a smile in exchange for a granola bar, we become more full. It’s a feeling I have come to crave – it’s a moment of connection with a stranger who is really just an as yet unknown member of my human family.
I now carry extra granola bars in the handlebar bag of my bike so when the kids and I go for rides around town, we aren’t empty-handed.
My kids have become spotters, occasionally making me flip a u-turn to offer a granola bar to someone on the other side of the street. After all, just because they’re “way over there” doesn’t mean they aren’t in need of a small kindness.
I started doing this so I could help others, I keep doing it because it helps me.
Maybe that is the lesson of committing random acts of kindness – sure they make another person’s day a little brighter, but they make your whole life better.
Perhaps the real lesson is that altruism and selfishness aren’t opposites after all.