Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Further Few Thoughts on Random Acts of Kindness

Over the past seven or eight months, I have written a couple of posts about doing random acts of kindness:

Wanna Try An Experiment?
Bakery Treat

Today is post #3 on this subject.

Years ago, when I was in law school, I had a best buddy by the name of Edward.  He was truly a beloved friend, and I learned much from him.  He was a controversial sort of guy whom people either loved or hated (you can tell where I was on the spectrum).  A small-statured man, Edward compensated for his size by his general volume.  He stomped about the hallowed halls in cowboy boots, and his opinions on any given subject were as loudly and clearly enunciated as any I've ever offered or heard elsewhere. He was neither shy nor retiring!  He was brilliant, ultimately the gold medalist in our graduating year, and he's now a big-shot (and, I suspect, loud-mouthed) criminal lawyer in Toronto.  For some reason, Edward and I just clicked as friends; we spent a lot of time together and, to this day, I miss his active presence in my life.

One very clear memory I have of Edward was formed during a walk we took downtown one day.  I can't remember where we were headed, but I do remember that we were in the middle of a loud and raucous argument about the pros and cons of legalizing prostitution (trust a couple of law students to be entertaining this particular conversation).  We were suddenly approached by a homeless man who had obviously seen better days.  My instinct was to shy away from him, and move past without saying anything or meeting his eyes.  Edward was different.  He came to a loud stop (when you're wearing those kind of boots, and staring brazenly into someone's eyes, even stopping seems loud), looked the man right in the eye and asked him how he was doing.  When the man asked if he had any money, Edward said that of course he did.  He pulled out his wallet, peeled out a number of bills, and gave them to him.  He clapped the man on the back, wished him a good day, and turned back to me, continuing his argument exactly where he'd left off mid sentence.  I saw the bills in the other man's hands - Edward had given him $50.

I was dumbfounded.  I interrupted Edward to ask if that was the smartest way he could spend his money; I knew he didn't have a lot to spare.  Edward looked confused.  I gracelessy suggested that the man would likely take that $50 and go and buy some alcohol or drugs, or something else like that.  Edward's response has stayed with me for many years.  He asked who we were to judge another person's life and what they did with a gift they'd been given?  He said that, given the undoubted harshness of that man's life, maybe there was reason he needed the alcohol or drugs to remove himself from some of the pain of his life.  He added that it could very well have been him begging for money on that street corner, and if it were, he would have appreciated a stranger's confidence in him.  Whatever use that man had for $50, Edward was completely ok with it, and felt fortunate to be in a position to give it to him.

Over the years that I was friends with Edward, I often saw him do similar things, and it had a lasting impact on me.  Here was I, a supposed Christian, commanded to love my neighbour as myself, but needing a lesson from my atheist friend about what it meant to be non-judgmental and caring towards the least fortunate among us.  It was a good lesson for me to be careful about the assumptions I make about people who believe differently than I do.  But it was also a lesson for me in compassion, and in forcing myself not to look the other way and ignore an issue that I would rather not have to process or deal with.  And so it is because of Edward's example that I collect and often give coins to the guys who stand at the intersection, who wait for the light to turn red so they can approach the waiting vehicles for a bit of money.  It's because of Edward that I am trying to teach Matthew not to shy away from someone in need, and to consider saying hello.  It's because of Edward's example that I regularly stop to give someone change if they ask for it and because of him that I feel badly about not giving someone change if I simply walk by and avert my head.

And it's because of Edward's example that I've started to get to know a man I'll call Max.

Every Sunday morning, for well over a year, I have come out of our downtown church building and, on route to the car, passed by a man sitting on the sidewalk: guitar in hand; cross-legged on the same doubled-up cardboard pizza boxes week after week; singing poorly at best; hoping for a few coins to be tossed onto another empty pizza box sitting beside him.  Remembering Edward, I started saying good morning to him as I passed by, trying to meet his gaze rather than avoid it (still a hard thing for me to do...maybe my own sense of guilt at having too much?).  He always smiled back, and interrupted his song to wish me a good morning, too.  It wasn't long before I started making sure that I had some extra money in my pocket before I left for church in the morning.  Over time, I learned his name, where he sometimes lived, and a few other miscellaneous things about him.  A few months ago, I began to ask him how he was doing, though I was anxious about this the first few times because I was scared of what his answer might be.  When I asked him this again, a couple of Sundays ago, he said that he wasn't all that great:  his face and hands were so cold that he could barely manage to play his guitar.  No was probably -20 celsius out there, and there he sat wearing threadbare gloves and nothing to cover his neck or face.  I asked him if I could bring him some gloves and something to cover his face and neck.  He was so appreciative that I was embarrassed; I moved on quickly.  That week, I went about buying him the warmest gloves and face/neck protector I could find.  Then, when Matthew was sick the following Sunday and I stayed home from church, I felt horrible, knowing that Max was out there: cold; and maybe wondering about the value of my promise.  I felt haunted for the whole next week, wondering how Max was faring, and feeling like I'd let him down.

Finally, this past Sunday, I had a chance to see him again, and quietly put beside him the things I had for him.  His sigh of appreciation and his heartfelt "thanks darlin'" warmed me as much as I hoped his new gloves and neck protector would him.

I write this story reluctantly.  Until a couple of weeks ago, not even Geoff knew that I collected bits of money for this fellow.  I truly am not telling this story to flaunt my own, very trivial, 'good deed.'  It would feel more like a good deed to me if I could help this man in a more substantial way.  This story is not about me, and I don't want anyone telling me that I did a nice thing.  Truly.

I decided to tell the story for one reason only:  because people like Edward and Max help me remember, on occasion, that even a smile or a greeting offered to a stranger, or some little token of assistance, can mean something.  And I want to challenge us all to learn from them.  I know that I need their reminders because all too often, I err on the judgmental side of the equation; and all too often, I go charging about my day with no thought about how those around me are doing, particularly the strangers who pass in and out of my line of sight.  And when I do remember, it's me that's left with the feeling of being blessed, me that's left with a lingering sense that life really is about loving our neighbours; it's me, by far, who's the beneficiary of these moments.


  1. LOVE this post Ruth. Thanks for the reminder to slow down at times and think about those less fortunate around us. I too try to smile and make eye contact with people asking for money on the street, because it costs nothing to give someone a little dignity. I'm going to make it my goal to put extra mitts and a hat in my car and find someone to give them away to in the next few weeks. Thanks for the story. I love how you make us think!

  2. Thx for the comment Kristin!! And I'm thrilled that another person out there is going to receive a pair of mitts and a hat this season.

    Just this afternoon, as I was out and about, I stopped at an intersection where a man was waiting for cars to stop, in order to approach them for money. He was limping along, dragging a foot behind him. When I opened my window and held out some money, I commented that it must be a lot of hard work for him to walk back and forth like he was doing. His response was "wow, you've got that right lady. Thanks for noticing." His face lit up as soon as I spoke to him and we ended our brief exchange by wishing each other a good Christmas. It was a short, lovely moment.

    Blessings, Kristin!