Monday, April 25, 2011

On Giving and Random Acts of Kindness

Regular readers of this blog will by now have surmised that The Man in the Purple Shirt can sometimes play and loose with the term "weekly." Well, a lot has been going on at EnvisionWare, Inc. over these last few months. In March we moved into a beautiful new facility which will eventually house--in addition to our offices--the Library of the Future (more on this in upcoming posts). In April, we released eagerly anticipated updates of our PC Reservation® software. As for me personally, I have been traveling on behalf of the company and have recently visited/worked in some beautiful libraries on both the east and west coasts. So--that's why you haven't heard from me in a while.

But that's all beside the point of today's blog. The following was originally published in our internal newsletter by someone I work with whom I will call a "Voice of EnvisionWare." I was quite moved by the piece and asked the individual if I might edit and present it to a larger audience via The Weekly EnvisionWare. It does not pertain to our company per se but rather to larger concerns of love, giving, and taking care of one another. I present it to you in the spirit of the season, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. I'm proud to work for a company that harbors these ideals.

The Gift

About a month ago I was eating at a fast food restaurant in an area that was not like the area around our office in Duluth.  Someone crept up quietly behind me and asked for money to buy food.  I had no extra change.  In fact, I didn't have any cash on me other than an emergency large bill I carry at all times. So I said, "Sorry, I don't have anything on me."  I never looked directly at her.   I had been taught while living in New York that you're not supposed to look at people on the street and you are definitely not to make eye contact.

She moved by quietly and the clerk behind the counter caught a glimpse of her at which time she was asked to leave.   I sat there feeling really bad about myself.  I have so much to be thankful for and this person simply needed some food.  I quickly finished and headed to the nearest Quik Trip to get cash from the ATM.  I drove back to the area to look for her.  I noticed another fast food place just up the street and headed for the lot.  Looking through the glass I could see her hovering near the back of the restaurant.  I parked and walked in.  Her eyes met mine and she quickly fled out the side door, hurrying as quickly as she could to get away from me.  Did she think I was with the police?   I ran after her and she ran faster.  I said quite loudly "Maam, I want to help you."    She stopped in her tracks and I handed her a $20.  She went directly back into the restaurant and I watched as she ordered food and then sat down to eat.

I did a retrospective.  I realized that many times before I've said, "Sorry, I have no extra cash."   Looking back, that's not really true.  Whether or not I had cash on me, I had access to money.  I also thought about the desperation that must exist for people who must hide in the shadows, hoping for a handout.  She was nowhere near a shelter.  I thought about the fear she must have felt when she thought I might harm her.   I promised myself that day that I would never turn away from someone that approached me on the street.   Even as little as a dollar can buy someone a hamburger and while I may not be rich, I eat well, live well, and fear not for my safety, next meal, or my employment.  I have it good.  Quite good.   I would make it a point to look a homeless person in the eye, and keep sufficient bills accessible so that I could offer a handout when asked.

Then I went to San Francisco.  SFO has the highest per capita homeless population in the United States.  In the tourist areas you may be asked 5 - 10 times for a handout in about a block or two of walking.  Some homeless people gather together on corners.  If you walk later in the evening, you'll see people crawled into corners, covered by torn cardboard and huddling plastic bags of their worldly possessions.  It's heartbreaking.

Keeping to my personal commitment, I had bills in my pocket.  As I walked from Bart to the conference hotel I was asked for help.  I gave a man a dollar.   I walked another hundred feet and did the same thing again.  I did it twice more in two blocks.   Each time I looked the person squarely in the face, smiled, and without reservation gave a handout.  The last man asked for more.  I gave him more.  Not one of these people said thank you.   I arrived at the hotel and at first thought, how ungrateful.   And after pondering this for a while I realized that they've probably run out of gratitude.  Whatever caused these people to be homeless, whether mental issues, drug or alcohol abuse, or the inability to get a job, they were at the bottom rung of their lives.  I then imagined how many times each day they must look for help and I wondered how many people look away or simply refuse to acknowledge their presence.
Then I realized that I had somehow decided that I was exchanging handouts.  I wanted to help someone, but I wanted an affirmation in return, a simple thank you.   That did not define selfless giving.  That defined barter.   I lowered my expectations and continued my week at the conference.  I looked people in the eye, gave them a dollar or few dollars depending on what I had available, and did not wait for anything in return.   I felt sad each time it happened -- and it happened a lot.   After a few days in the city, a lady asked for money to buy food.   She had a small child with her, probably about four or five.  I reached into my pocket and gave her all the bills I had; I'm guessing it was around $35.    She started crying, grabbed my hand, knelt down and thanked God, and ran away with her child into a market to buy food.
I felt good.  I was still sad about the thought of so many people suffering and I soon realized that these were not the least fortunate people in the world.  At least they were in an environment where they might get a handout.  The city will care for them when it gets cold.   Charities are available to provide some assistance.   But I felt good that in some very small way these people had made me a better person.    

I realized that I've lied in the past.  I've said that I had nothing when I did.  I've ignored people because I thought that was the best way to deal with it.   The fact that I am so fortunate and failed to act makes me feel like I've let people down.    I've heard the stories and the statements - "Let 'em get a job." Or, "They did it to themselves."  But I know that this is not always the case.  I know that there are real people in trouble that may be suffering through no fault of their own. 

These people gave me a gift.  They taught me that genuine charity expects nothing in return.  That even the smallest help can make a difference in someone's life.  That it's just plain indecent to ignore people.   And that I cannot use my perspective on life to judge the perspective others have.

How does this relate to the industry we work in?  I'm not here to preach or necessarily encourage charity.  But I am here to explain that there are things that can change our perspective.  We cannot be so egotistical as to believe that our viewpoint about eating, money, the world, charity, kindness or anything else is the same for others.  My personal empathy has grown and I just hope that I can keep it up and that I can continue to translate that empathy into personal growth. The library industry is one of service; and caring about those we serve, whether customers or people we help on the street, translates to unexpected growth and rewards --- as long as you don't do it for those reasons.


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