Illuminated Parenting

Uncommon Acts of Kindness

Yesterday at the gas station I witnessed an unusual act of kindness.

It’s a big, busy gas station, cars in and out, people waiting impatiently for an open pump. As I get out of my car I notice the one to my left was a rusted, banged up, holding-the-exhaust-pipe-up-with-wire kind of car. There is a run-down owner standing next to it, disheveled, clothes worn and torn. She is in her late 40’s, early 50’s, and explaining to those standing around her that for some reason her car just wouldn’t start.

Yea, I think, it’s a piece of junk, of course it won’t start, not that I am really thinking too much about it. I’m in a hurry. I don’t really have a feeling about it one way or another. We’ve all seen this many times, people struggling with clearly not enough resources to solve their problems but limping along as best they can. From experience I know this woman’s problems likely go well beyond issues with this car, and I’m not inclined to delve in. I don’t want to get involved, I have places to be, things to do, can’t get caught up in this woman’s problems so I scurry around the car to start pumping my gas.

I can’t help but hear the conversation between the owner of the car and two others, a young man dressed casually in his tan khakis, baseball cap and light jacket, and a woman about the same age as the car owner who looks as though she just came from an afternoon at the country club, neat as a pin in matching pants and sweater, perfect hair, sparkling jewelry. I expect her to make excuses and walk away but she asks more questions of the car owner. I can’t make out the questions, but I hear the owner of the car saying she has no one to call, no money, no ability to get a tow truck.

Stereotypically, I think the young man might offer to look under her hood or something, but it’s the neat-as-a-pin woman that I hear say, “I’m not comfortable just leaving you here.” Wow, I think, she’s just opened the door to who knows what with the car owner and she…is…amazingly…kind. I’m impressed, very impressed at her willingness to get involved. The young man does offer to push the broken down car to the side of the gas lot so she is not blocking a pump while the sweater-set woman says she’ll be right back after moving her car out of the way too.

Moving the broken-down car to the side is accomplished easily as it’s very small. The young man wishes her well and walks back to his car. I have finished pumping my gas and get back in my own car. As I’m getting ready to drive off, I see the two women reconvening at the broken down car, and I’m struck with envy. I envy the fortunate woman’s character and ability to ignore convention to help a fellow human being. I envy her willingness to get involved, to be kind, to be generous of her time.

As I drive away with the young man right behind me, I ask myself some questions. I wonder about this idea of not getting involved in other people’s problems, in how it can be too complicated, too draining, too dangerous. It’s a story that keeps us separated and alone. If we live in two separate worlds, how will we learn about each other and find the solutions?

We expect social service agencies to fill this need and yet we don’t back those organizations with the resources, and yes I mean money, to do their job. It’s like giving an organization a butter knife and telling them to cut down a forest of trees. An inexpensive tool but not up to the work that needs doing. But wait, you might say, what about the kind woman, isn’t that working? I don’t know. I don’t know if that kind woman will ultimately be able to help. Chances are the problems go well beyond the car.

I imagine these situations to be complicated which is why I don’t want to stop. What issues is the kind woman going to run up against? Will she be able to help this woman get home? Then what? To what kind of home? What might be the other problems this woman faces? No work? No food? Addiction? Family problems? How much can the kind woman make a difference? In the long run will the car owner be helped by this one act of kindness? Of course, there is always benefit in kindness and curiosity and asking about what’s going on. And kindness mixed with curiosity represent the best attitude as we look for solutions to help others.

Some dismiss struggling people as lazy, as just needing to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but this glosses over the details as if there is never a reason to struggle in life, as if all struggles are self-inflicted and just as easily changed. Why would someone consciously choose poverty? This may be caused by illness, low paying work or an unfortunate accident. When people struggle it affects us all. When we see individual problems as universal it makes sense to tune in and find solutions together.

I have been thinking about my own stuck beliefs about helping others. What is the story you tell yourself about the impoverished? Are they unlucky or lazy? Is it their problem alone? How does their struggle affect you even if you do try to ignore it? Are your beliefs an old story, passed from parent to child? Is it still true today? Either way, what is your solution to solving the problems of our society? Do you walk away? Or find a way to help?

The decision is yours—and mine.

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