courage and kindness

It’s been a while since my last post, mainly because I’ve been occupied with other things. Lately I’ve been writing more than I did in Australia – I should do it more often. I’m good at it, and I love it. I’ve written several poems, a couple of songs – none of them very special. I’m not sure if I’d  be brave enough to put them on the internet; stories are more my thing. Recently I started putting particular thoughts and images I’ve had in my head for years down on paper, and it feels strange. There’s a part of me which wants to discover the hidden path in my head and see where it takes me, but in a way I don’t want to find it. It’s like an exotic bird. Part of the attraction is not understanding it, not knowing what it’ll do or where it’ll go next. It is hidden from you, but you can still hear it singing. If you catch it and write it down, you seal it off forever. It won’t change any more. It won’t be free. I guess I’m afraid that I won’t be able to do it justice. I know what I want it to be, and I won’t be able to forgive myself if I can’t tell it to other people. Maybe I’ll let that bird sing a little longer.

A couple of weeks ago I walked to school. As I walked through the centre of town I decided to take some money out of the ATM for no reason other than to have some in my purse, just in case. When I got close I saw a woman, no more than forty, sitting against the wall a couple of metres away. She was dressed in a worn but clean coat and had a plastic cup and a cardboard sign asking for money. There was a part of myself which wanted to walk away without taking money out just to avoid going near her. That revolted me because I always feel compassion for homeless people regardless of past or present situations. Standing there, I debated whether or not to give her the 20€ note I was holding, but decided not to. I said ‘bonne chance’ to her as I walked past, but the clean new notes in my purse made me feel sick. I looked back as I walked away, feeling awful. Passing a bakery just around the corner reminded me of something that happened when I was younger.
<I was with my father in the city where I grew up and we were approached by an Aboriginal man as we were paying for a parking ticket. It was always my job to push the buttons on the machine. The man was obviously drunk; he was dirty and took up both sides of the footpath in a foot-dragging lurch. He asked for money with his hands cupped in front of him, and my first instinct was to back away. My father stood straight, looked him in the eye, and told him he wouldn’t give him money, but that he would buy him a hot meal if he wanted one. Maybe the man was too out of himself to understand but he swore at us and swaggered away. My father told me that it’s better not to give money to people like that because you don’t know what they’ll spend it on, and it could make things worse for them. Instead, he told me, the most valuable things you can do are to buy them a meal, if you can, and to show kindness. He taught me to always be courteous and compassionate for people in difficult situations like that – you never know what kind of life they’ve led.>
On a whim, I walked into the bakery and bought two croissants. It cost me less than 2€. I walked back around the corner and gave them to the woman, who smiled and gave me nothing but a quiet thank you. I smiled as I walked away. I didn’t look back again.

As I walked to school I thought about that woman. I don’t know who she is. I don’t know her name. I don’t know where she’s from, I don’t know where she’s going. I don’t know where she sleeps at night or who she dreams about. I don’t know why she was wrapped up in a clean, well-worn coat holding a plastic cup and a cardboard sign on a cold Thursday morning, but I know she has more courage than many. How many people do you know would be able to watch every person who walked silently past, just in case they flipped a coin at your feet? Who knows what life she left to sit near that ATM on a cold Thursday morning? If I had half that woman’s courage I would’ve bought ten croissants. A hundred. Heck, I’d’ve bought half the shop.

The thank you she gave me, that small gratitude, left me smiling for the rest of the day. They say you can’t buy happiness, but I’ve never believed it. It’s true, money in itself doesn’t bring real happiness; one little coin bought me a happiness more profound than a sackful of notes could’ve done. The cost of two croissants is nothing to many people, and yet most would walk past a beggar without a glance. It may be nothing to you, but for them it can be the difference between another cold day on the streets and one which might feel a little warmer. So I ask, anyone who is reading this: next time, do them a favour – and don’t expect anything from them in return. Their not being able to repay you is part of what makes it feel so good. You’re doing something kind not because it’s a necessity, but because you can. Because you have the courage, the compassion, the kindness to break through something inside of you and reach out to a total stranger. You might not remember it in a month or a year; you might not miss a small gold and silver coin in your purse. But those tiny things: a croissant from a stranger, a hot drink from someone who walked passed and saw, can stick with a person forever. It’s the littlest things that show who we truly are.

I hope she’s there next week. Maybe I’ll buy her a coffee.

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