Disclaimer: The following post is not intended to make anyone feel “guilty” it is however intended to make you feel, but more to make you think. It’s easy to react to scary situations with fear. It’s easy to shut the door and say it’s not my problem. It’s even easier to let fear turn to hate.
I do not spend a lot of time trying to be deep, or to engage in socio-political discourse. After the last several days of reading social media statuses and watching the news with pundits politicizing tragedy, and seeing the sweeping statements of fear and hate with regard to refugees and more, I wanted to share a story.
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to take the family on road trips. Every summer, we’d pile into the car and go somewhere. Sometimes it was to visit my brother’s paternal family in Kentucky, sometimes it was to go to some landmark or battlefield somewhere, sometimes it was just pointing at a map and driving there to see what we would find.
My parents had a somewhat nomadic existence during my childhood. My grandmother always wanted to go see something new, some place new, and sometimes it worked out and sometimes it didn’t. We moved every two years, I can pack my house and unpack in under a day. I hate to live out of boxes, but these are all due to a childhood spent on the move constantly.
During one of these many trips, we came across a family whose vehicle had broken down at a rest stop. Mom, Dad and their four kids had no money, no place to live and no way to fix their vehicle. We split our food with them at a picnic table and Nan listened to their story. Dad had been laid off, and Mom had been a stay at home mom. He looked for work and took spare jobs, but couldn’t get anything permanent.
Eventually, piece by piece, they lost everything. As an adult and parent, I can’t imagine the growing sense of frustration and fear. I didn’t understand it then, only that their middle daughter was my age and she said, they’d lost their house, and now they were losing their car…they were living out of the car. The kids slept in it and their parents slept out side.
They were on their way to friends or family (I was never sure which) in California, and we were somewhere in Tennessee. After spending an hour with them, my grandmother loaded us in the car and we got on the road. Then she pulled off at the next exit, found a mechanic’s shop and got them to go back to the rest stop with a tow truck.
Over the next several hours, so many strange things happened. We stuck around while Nan had their car fixed and paid for it–please keep in mind we never had much, and we always eeked by with the bare minimum. She got on a payphone (yeah we didn’t have cell phones back then kids) and called my mother at home. Told her she was sending the family that way and to give them a place to stay. After all, we were gone for the next couple of weeks. Then she gave the family money, though they kept refusing her and our address. She told them to go to our place, and when we got back, she’d help them figure it out from there.
It was so weird.
Weirder still, two weeks later when we got home. The whole family was living in our apartment. And they were so happy to see us. I suddenly had to share my bedroom with two other girls. The parents were sleeping in my mom’s room, and my brother had to share his room too. My grandmother slept in her room downstairs and my mom took the sofa.
That family lived with us for three months, and we never had much money. With the family there, we had even less. When we were eating tighter and tighter, I remember complaining to my grandmother that we could get more food if we didn’t have to feed all these extra people.
She paused and told me they could eat more if we didn’t. I didn’t get it, but she said they were hungry, and we had food. We didn’t have to eat well to eat, and if we ate well and they starved, could I really live with it?
I shut up, because no I couldn’t. During their fourth month in our place, the dad found a job and so did the mom. A month after that, Nan and my mom helped them put a deposit down on a small house. Six months after they moved in with us, and two weeks before Christmas, they moved into their own place.
They were overjoyed and loved it, my parents went above and beyond to help them out. It was neat, and kind of strange. They went from living out of their car to having a nice house–hell it was nicer than our place. The dad’s job paid real well. Suddenly they had two cars and more stuff. Then they didn’t have time for us, and one day, they simply weren’t in our lives anymore.
They never gave my grandmother a dime back of any of the money she helped them out with. They changed their phone number and by Easter of the following year, we never saw them again. The next summer we were on the road, and I made a casual remark when we stopped at the next rest stop that I hoped they didn’t have any strays there. I didn’t have much of a Christmas the previous year, and I’d had to share all my stuff and my parents lost money to help out this family and now they couldn’t be bothered.
Nan pulled the car over, turned around and stared at me, then she said, “If you help anyone because you expect to be rewarded then you aren’t helping them, you’re helping yourself. If you don’t help someone, because you’re afraid of them or afraid of what they’d do, you’re a sad person. Someday, that family will help someone else, and those people will help other people. We don’t help them because we expect to get something back, we help them because we’re human and too many people walk away. Too many people forget it could be them. If you remember nothing else, remember this–charity is the act of being kind to everyone–not just those you like or those who are like you.”
“But what if they don’t help anyone else? What if they are more interested in themselves than doing the right thing?”
My grandmother shrugged. “I don’t live my life based on what someone else might do. I live it doing what I know is right and helping someone in need is right. I saw enough hate and loss in the war. If I can do something for someone else, then I will damn well do it.”
My grandmother was right. Then again, she was right about a great many things. If I can do something for someone else, I will damn well do it. I’ve been helped when I was desperate and near losing everything. I’ve seen people turn their backs and get butthurt because I didn’t recover as fast as they deemed I should. I’ve seen people come and go in my life. It’s not about repayment. It’s not about getting something back.
It’s about doing the right thing. Think about it.