I have not been prone to depression and for this, I am very grateful. But, that is not to say that I haven’t had times in my life when I have struggled with what was probably more serious than ‘the blues’. Most of the time it’s been centered around a legitimate reason for deep sadness; a divorce, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one. The first time, however, it was completely undefined and I had no idea how to deal with it. So I called my mom.
It was my first year of college, I was living on campus and it was back in the day before cell phones, when there were two pay phones at the end of the dorm hall. You had to use a couple of the quarters you were saving for laundry, hope someone was at home to answer the phone (no answering machines) and ask them to call you back (it was long distance – too many quarters). Then, you sat in the little booth until the phone rang. What was Mom’s advice after I told her I wasn’t feeling like myself? After the standard, “Get some sleep. Things will look better in the morning.” she spoke these words into my life, and they truly were, and are, words to live by: “Do something nice for someone else.” She went on to say, in the kindest way possible, “You are spending too much time focused on yourself and your own problems. You need to think of a way to do something kind for someone else. It will make you feel better. You’ll see.”
It wasn’t hard to find something I could do, even though I had no money and I was overwhelmed; leaving notes of encouragement in people’s mail cubbies (nobody gets mail during spring quarter!), folding a random person’s clothes in the laundry room, sharing the treats in the care package I got from my grandma, french braiding a friend’s hair. It really did make me feel better. It was the turn around I needed to get me out of the dark place I was in and through to the end of the quarter. In the last few months I’ve found a much deeper meaning to those simple words of advice from my mom; a way of life that focuses on gratitude and kindness when self-pity and depression begin to saturate my thought processes.
For reasons I can’t explain, about four or five months ago I became gradually more aware that there was a rapidly growing population of people in my community who were experiencing homelessness. Of course this has been going on since the beginning of civilization, but I began to SEE it, see THEM as if for the first time. I began to ask questions in earnest. Why is this happening? What is the root cause? What do we do about it? What can I do about it?
Then, I lost my job and suddenly I didn’t feel so far removed from ‘it’, from ‘them’. Although I was far from destitute, I was painfully aware of how precarious my financial situation was. The first time I went grocery shopping during the day, when I should have been at work, a person outside the store asked me if I had spare change and for the first time in my life I answered truthfully. I had always lied, flat-out lied, in front of friends, in front of my son. Lied. “No, I don’t have any change.” But I did. I had change and chose not to give it to them. And this time and from then on, when asked, I gave it. I don’t know if it was out of some sense of kinship, being unemployed myself, but I decided that I would take people at their word. If they said they were hungry, they were. If they said they needed money for gas, they did. If they said they were buying a bus ticket, they would. I got in the habit of putting a dollar’s worth of change in my pocket before I left the house, having my son drop his pocket change in the cup holder in the car, and making sure I had back up in a coin pouch in the bottom of my purse. I didn’t have any delusions that my dollar’s worth of change was going to change anyone’s life, I just didn’t want to lie, dismiss and ignore. I wanted to see, acknowledge and connect. And I did.
I began to hear people, look them in the eye, speak to them and shake their hands. One of the first was a woman outside the grocery store who asked me if I had spare change. “Actually, I do.” When I placed it in her hand I felt her palm was callused, and all the way home I wondered what kind of hard work she had been doing to have such rough hands. Another was a man wandering up and down the grocery check stands with a package of hot dogs. I assumed he was looking for the shortest line and they were all long. I asked him if he wanted to go ahead of me because he only had one item. He hung his head in shame and said, “I’m just trying to figure out what to do. I need ninety seven cents to buy these and all got is thirty seven cents.” He pulled his change out of his pocket to show me. I pulled the change out of my pocket and said, “Well, I can spot you a dollar if you want to get in line ahead of me.” He said, “Really? Well, thank you!” and got in line with his hot dogs. He pulled out his wallet and showed me his ID and said, “I’m 57 years old. You’d think I’d be doing better by now.” We visited while we waited in line and he told me he thought if he went to Alaska he’d have a better chance of finding work. I didn’t ask him how he planned to get there. I bought him a bag of chips, too, and he left with a smile and a handshake. Then, there was Jack, who introduced himself because I was walking my dog, also named Jack. He knew that since my dog was a rescue from Maui that his particular mix of mutt was bred for hunting feral pigs in the Hawaiian islands. He didn’t ask me for money, but we walked together, the three of us, for about a quarter mile and he shook my hand and patted Jack’s head before we parted ways. He was camping in a park near my house. I thought about Jack the Human for many days and was haunted by his words. In referring to the dog, I had said, “Jack is a happy guy.” Jack the Human responded, referring to himself, “He used to be.”
I began to refer to this as my Change Experiment and I looked forward to leaving the house each day with a dollar’s worth of change in my pocket. Sometimes I came up with a reason to get out and about, just so I could look for an opportunity to give away my change. Oddly enough I never ran out of change. I still haven’t.
As days turned into weeks and I still didn’t have a job, I was losing momentum. After years of working myself into exhaustion, I was completely rested up. I had used my initial surge of enthusiasm about free time to get several projects done, but now depression began to set in. It was not an unreasonable response to my circumstances; I was a single parent, the sole provider for my family, unemployed and with a very uncertain future for myself and my child. But, what was the appropriate action? I continued to do what I could humanly do to get a job; the rest was in God’s hands. What did God require of me to be accountable for the rest of my life during this time? I knew the answer, of course. I needed to take my Change Experiment to the next level. And I couldn’t do it alone.
With another heatwave in the immediate forecast, I put out the call on social media: I wanted to invite people to join me in handing out supplies to people living outside – Gatorade, juice, nutritious snacks, treats, personal items and Bibles. Within 24 hours supplies began pouring in and my little living room was filled with bags and boxes and within two days I had a motley crew of people from the odd corners of my life, some brand new friends, some I had known for over 30 years, and my 13 year old son, gathered at my house, ready with loaded backpacks and open minds to head out on foot. That first expedition was the most humbling because the people we found, camping in tents and hanging out in parks, were no more than a few blocks from my house.
The following day, my mom and I went out in the car scouting for where I might return on foot but I ended up bailing out of the car with a backpack and handing out more supplies. We drove around town to the places where I handed out my change and found some folks in the outer corner of the grocery store parking lot and when we got out to talk to them, a man said, “I sure appreciate this! Things is gettin’ so hard.” I thought he meant the heat and I commented on it. He said, “No, the heat don’t bother me. But they keep kicking us out. There’s just no place left for us to go.”
A few days later a former coworker contacted me and asked if she could help. She came over, we loaded backpacks, parked downtown and walked around looking for people who had shopping carts or sleeping bags. That day, nearly everyone we gave supplies to had alcohol, which lead to some thought provoking conversation. A week later, I was scheduled to get together with a friend and instead of the outing we had planned, she asked if we could drive around and distribute supplies. I had barely two full packs left, so we pooled our resources (two single mothers, struggling financially) packed a couple of simple sack lunches and headed out. Again, as with my mom, she parked and waited with the car (it was hot and she had a baby in a car seat) while I bailed out of the car with a backpack and looked for people. My last two packs handed out in the downtown park, we decided to loop around through the ‘hood. At an intersection, we handed a man who was asking for money a sack lunch. He was thrilled and began eating it immediately. With one lunch left, we were heading home, looking for a need, and my friend spotted an infant seat, sitting in front of a dumpster. After making a pact to raise the baby together, she made a U-turn, pulled in, I jumped out of the car and with a pounding heart, discovered… an empty infant seat. (We were relieved, and, both admitted, a little disappointed.) It’s funny what you notice when you are truly looking.
One sack lunch left, which I kept in my car, and I felt that I was done with my project, when I received a card in the mail that brought me to tears. A thank you note from my aunt and uncle who were inspired by my attempts to do something, anything, in my little corner of the world, and in the envelope, fifty dollars; seed money towards my next round. I wasn’t sure where to go from there. I needed some time to regroup, re-evaluate and come up with a plan for the next phase. A week ago, a man was standing at the corner by the grocery store with a cardboard sign with only a smiley face drawn on it. He was on the passenger side, and I was alone in the car, so I was unable to give him change, and he wasn’t asking for it. But, I remembered, I had the last lunch buried somewhere in the back seat. I pulled over, got out, found it and ran across the street. “I have this little lunch if you want it.” He smiled really big and said, “Yes! Thank you so much!” I ran back to my car and looked back at him as I pulled away and he was holding a pudding cup up in my direction, as if to say, “Cheers!”. I remembered the man who received the other lunch, pulling out the banana and peeling and eating it immediately as if he’d been craving one for days. It brought me back to the simplicity of my mom’s advice: Do something nice for someone else. I can’t run a food bank, or a head up a charity organization, or work in a rehabilitation facility, but I can do something, SOME LITTLE THING nice for someone when I’m looking for the opportunity. And when I do, it makes me grateful for what I have and kinder to everyone around me.
Here’s a few things I have learned in talking and interacting with people in various stages of need: When people don’t want or need help, they will tell you – just move on. If you’re going to offer something, you have to give it freely, regardless of your own biases – if the woman smoking a joint says she really wants a Bible, you give her one, and if the happy drunk sitting in the sweltering sun with a case of Coors says he could really use a Gatorade, you give it to him. Tent dwellers might appreciate some supplies, but might not want to meet face to face – ask permission to approach, leave it at the zipper door, and beat a hasty retreat (the disembodied hand will appear to collect what you leave). Some people just really want to speak to another human being, to tell you their name, to know yours, to shake your hand and to tell you a little about themselves – this has been the best part of this experience!
I still have fifty dollars in my wallet for the next project. I’m waiting to be inspired. It may come with the next harsh season; ponchos and tarps when the constant rains set in, or gloves and socks when the first cold snap comes. My own future, and my child’s, is still very uncertain and our situation, precarious. But, I’m continuing to be challenged to focus on gratitude and kindness. Whatever your circumstance may be, whenever you feel yourself begin to circle into that downward spiral I offer Mom’s simple advice: Do something nice for someone else.
~ Love is Risk