On the first day, we were asked why we were there: What was it that made us want to give our time to helping this refugee family?
This is always a hard question for me.
I said something about wanting the family to feel welcome in a new place, about wanting to help others in a time of need. It felt like the response I should give, but afterward I found myself asking, “Why?” Do I give back out of a sense of obligation? Or self-fulfillment? Or is my giving tied to a deeper cord within our humanity, one that knows that by helping each other, we do our part to lift the world up and enhance our capacity as humans to be compassionate?
It is evident that we are moved to help each other. The recent responses to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria have made this abundantly clear. Strangers help strangers in times of need. Strangers no longer become strangers in times of need; they become humans with hearts and hands, with sufferings and joys and needs and desires.
With a natural disaster that’s close at hand, the need for help is so overwhelming and obvious that people drop what they are doing—their everyday concerns and cares—and meet the current need: They rescue people from the flood, they give them shelter when they have lost their home, they provide food when they are hungry. But, where does this giving manifest in our community when we are not presented with disaster?
I notice people giving in small ways on a daily basis: the young woman stopping her car to wave a child and mother across the street, the grey-haired man in front of me genuinely asking the young man at the check out stand how his day was and listening intently to his response.
These authentic exchanges don’t just buoy the mood of the person being acknowledged or even the person doing the acknowledging. They help whoever is observing the moment as well. When I watch these exchanges, it reminds me how naturally altruism comes to us. Even when we have very little ourselves, we extend our hand. A recent personal experience reminded me of this:
I was out teaching a member of a refugee family to drive. We were on Broadway near Murdoch’s, and I asked him if we could stop so I could buy some fake, ceramic eggs to encourage my chickens to lay. He came into the store with me and as I checked out, he insisted on paying. When I protested, knowing that he came here with no money and was working as hard as he could to earn a living for his family, he said, “No, it’s all the same.”
It’s all the same. Yes. I give to him; he gives to me. Our generosity fills each other’s bowls of gratitude. At some point, the bowls fill to the brim and there is enough gratitude to express generosity toward someone else. And so, the generosity spreads and through small, daily acts we bring each other up. And together, we expand the capacity for kindness in the world.