Tuesday, January 20, 2015

A Golden Chain of Kindness

Image by Stephen Eastop

Writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, "Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together." But I was not thinking about a golden chain of kindness one day when a dilapidated automobile, possibly held together with glue and wire, parked in front of the house. During those years, we lived in a small mountain town next to a freeway. Our home was located across the street from the church I served, and travelers in need frequently found their way to our front door, usually aided by townsfolk who pointed out where they might get some assistance.

Let me confess: kindness can be difficult and thankless work. Though the little community generously donated to help with this cause, I grew weary of the numerous strangers who constantly rang my doorbell. My life was busy, my work was demanding and I was tired. I was also beginning to feel “put upon.” One time our property was vandalized by a man I had invited to spend the night in the warmth of the little church; once I drove 30 miles through a hazardous blizzard to carry a couple of hitchhikers to shelter who showed no appreciation for the sacrifice; frequently I was awakened in the middle of the night to get out in the bitter cold and give assistance to someone passing through; too often travelers manipulated or lied or stridently complained that I didn’t give them more.

Not that I need a lot of thanks. But my work with these people was volunteer and I was losing the warm feeling I once had by doing it. At one time I felt I was truly helping. Now I felt stressed and harassed. Early on it seemed like I might be doing some good, but as of late I wondered if that was true.

It seemed as if the golden chain of kindness was broken. Instead of binding me closer to others, I felt increasingly distant.

I also felt guilt for feeling sorry for myself. “I should WANT to be more helpful,” I told myself. I questioned my motives. Am I doing all of this so people will value me, or because there is a need here I can help meet? Is this about me or about them? I still offered assistance where I could, though more than once I silently wished that people wanting something from me would just go away.

But on this day, a young man with a week-old beard climbed from the broken-down automobile. He had no money and no food. He asked if I could give him some work. I offered him some gasoline and a meal. I told him that if he wanted to work, we'd be pleased if he'd cut the grass, but work wasn't necessary.

Though sweaty and hungry, he worked hard. Because of the afternoon heat, I thought he might give up before the job was completed. But he persisted and, after a long while, he sat wearily down in the shade. I thanked him for his work and gave him the money I promised. Then I offered him a little extra for a task particularly well done, but he refused. "No sank you," he said in heavily accented speech. I insisted that he take the money but he stood up and once again said, "No sank you. I want to work. Joo keep the money." I realized his dignity was at stake and thanked him again for the good job.

I never saw that man after he drove away. And interestingly, he probably thought I helped him that day. But that is not the way it was. I’m sure I didn't help him as much as he helped me. In his honesty and sincerity, he reminded me of the innate decency of people. He helped me recall just why I wanted to reach out to strangers in the first place. Something that had almost died inside seemed to wake up. I remembered my real reasons for reaching out and immediately began to feel better…more hopeful, more useful. I believed, again, that the little I was doing could actually make a difference.

This stranger (I don’t even recall his name) helped me to once again WANT to do something for those who are in need. I wish I could thank him for giving me back a little optimism I had lost somewhere along the way. Because of him I felt that once again the golden chain of kindness binding us to one another was restored. We were brothers. I may have fed his body that day. But he fed my soul.

-- Steve Goodier


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