In the city block where my grandparents lived, shabbily dressed men often walked the streets delivering advertising circulars for local grocery and department stores. My grandmother called them “the bargain paper men.” They were often older men, thin and gray haired; they might walk with a limp, their hand might tremble as they fastened the rolled up advertisement to the door handle with a green rubber band. A shy, fearful child, I would often crouch behind the door out of sight when I spied them coming down the street. I felt a strange combination of fear and sadness toward these men. Sometimes, if my grandfather were around, I would run and crawl into his lap, thinking I could protect him - also a quiet, slender, gray-haired man - from the fate of becoming a bargain paper man, as if he could suddenly fall victim to whatever dire circumstance had led them to this place.
My heart ached for those men and all the things I worried they didn’t have - a warm home, a good job, meals to eat, people to love them. I couldn’t name it then, but those feelings were the first stirrings of compassion, the kind of concern for another’s suffering that seems to be in short supply in today’s world.
In the news right now are refugee children, thousands of them, seeking a better life on our shores; families in the middle east torn apart by political violence that has its roots in grievances thousands of years in the making; the innocent dead littered across a prairie after their aircraft was shot from the sky by an angry government.
There is so much compassion needed. Where do we find it amidst our quickness to anger and our rush to judgement? Even though every religion in the world espouses compassion and kindness as key values, we often turn deaf ears and hardened hearts to the needs of others. We’re protective of our own needs, snarly about giving away too much time or money. Or we think we can’t do enough, so we do nothing.
I worry about people and animals who don’t have enough - enough love, enough shelter, enough to eat or drink. I want to help them in a big way, but I don’t know how. I give bits of time and money and effort to big organizations dedicated to compassionate care, but that seems like pitiable recompense.
I can’t begin to solve all the world’s problems. None of us can, no matter how much we pontificate or splutter on Facebook, no matter how many checks we write or mission trips we participate in. But I believe every act of compassion builds upon itself: every time we smile at a stranger, or do a favor for a neighbor, or foster a homeless pet, we put a small piece of positive energy into the world, energy that multiplies and spreads.
My grandparents house also had an alley behind it, and sometimes in the mornings men would appear at the back gate asking for food. Perhaps these were the same “bargain paper men” I would see later in the day. Perhaps they were other homeless men. Yes, they could have been drinkers or drug addicts down on their luck. Nevertheless, my grandmother often handed them a sack of something to eat. “I always feed them,” she told me once. “You never know, one of them might be Jesus come back to earth."
How amazing if we could see divinity in every person we meet, whether they are rich or poor, black, white, refugee, or warrior. Difficult to do, I admit.
I fail at it on a regular basis.
But imagine - if every person on the planet did one small kind thing for someone else every day, what a wonderful world that would be.
The only way to get there is to start small.
Start with one person, one act of kindness.
With me. With you.
Note: This essay was originally written in July 2014, and I came across it as I was collating the essays for a new book, Life Goes On. It seemed appropriate for these days we’re living now.