When I was young, my father parked in front of a Safeway to get groceries while a very disturbed, unkempt man paced and muttered wildly outside. His hand was outstretched, asking for money. People were scared of him and ran past him. I waited in the car and watched as my father calmly asked him a question, and then went inside.
The man suddenly became quiet and sat down. A store manager who had come outside to kick the man off the property emerged, and seeing that the man was now quiet, slowly edged back inside.
When my dad returned, he had a bag of groceries for the man. He came back to the car as the man slowly walked away. "Sometimes people suffer from mental illness, and they don't get the support they need," he explained to us. "He just needed some food."
That small act was reinforced one day at our family's church, in the heart of a poor neighbourhood, when my dad traded his nice warm shoes for a pair of cardboard slippers owned by a homeless man. He acted like it was no big deal, and that he was the luckier one by getting a pair of slippers. It was in the middle of a Winnipeg winter, and very cold outside.
There were absolutely no comments about addictions, race, or money. No judgements or insinuations of superiority whatsoever. None of that was appropriate or remotely relevant. The man deserved dignity, and my father quietly obliged.
Our own life circumstances are not simply a matter of choice. We don't control the families we are born into, how we are raised, our nationality, our genetics, which side of colonial history we come from, or the random events that happen to us. Some of us learn resilience from an early age, while others struggle.
Some of us were born in war zones; others were not. It is easy to judge people from seats of comfort and from very narrow lenses of perception. We all want to feel special, and "above average." This often compels us to compare ourselves to others, make snap judgements, and rank people lower than us in the quest to make ourselves feel "special."
It risks turning anyone who is different from us into the "other" instead of looking at each individual with humility, utmost respect, and compassion. This is the risk of middle and upper class privilege, or perhaps even more specifically, of white privilege.
"I grew up understanding that we are supposed to serve people. If we have enough, it is our job to share."
Parents model behaviour to their children, and children watch very closely. My dad taught me not to give money on the street, but if someone asked, we should treat them with complete, sincere dignity and take the time to offer them whatever it is they need. It can be inconvenient -- taking a stranger out for lunch and hearing their story, spending an extra 5 minutes buying someone groceries, giving someone our own mittens in the dead of winter, or perhaps giving someone a ride that is out of our way.
Maybe it means finding a place for someone to sleep, sending a thoughtful note, babysitting a neighbour's child, or taking 30 minutes out of the day to simply be present for someone who is obviously struggling with something.
I grew up understanding that we are supposed to serve people. If we have enough, it is our job to share. Life is meant to be lived with compassion. Spending a few minutes of our day on someone else is good not only for them -- it is a great gift to us, and an opportunity to learn a great deal of humility. We could all use a good humbling.
As a young adult, I would eagerly proclaim my own grand ideals, and my dad would challenge me. "Don't be so loud about it, Zarah. I don't want to hear it. Just live it." To him, it wasn't special. It was simply life.
I now spend a lot of my time volunteering for humanitarian causes, but I still think the most important lessons are the ones that occur daily on the street, in our homes, or in front of the grocery store. It is the daily call to take 30 seconds to focus on someone else, and be in the moment. It has been equally important, in those moments, to ensure every individual is treated with complete and utter dignity.
My kids are often with me, and the encounters have led to many teachable opportunities that I hope they will model too. They understand that as middle class Canadians, they have been born lucky, and that they need to stand up for social justice -- even if it means a bit of discomfort on their own part -- to ensure everyone has the same hope and opportunity to succeed.
They also understand the vital importance of acting through unrecognized opportunity, and of open generosity in the small, everyday moments. What excites me most is that there are many parents teaching their children the art and importance of active daily, moment-by-moment compassion, whether it be on the playground, on the street, or for a distant overseas cause. We need more of it. We will always need more.
This evening I made a late-night stop at the store, and a young amputee in a wheelchair was outside, asking for money. Thoughts of my dad came back to my mind. I asked him for his grocery list and invited him to join me inside. "Milk and cereal," he said with a grin, declining to enter. "That's all?" I asked, a little surprised at his modest response.
But when I returned outside, there were two more bags of groceries hanging on the back of his chair. I obviously wasn't the only one pausing to check in on him tonight. Although there were very few people out shopping late at night, at least one -- possibly two or more -- had also asked him the same thing, and had followed through. The collective was at work. And that made me smile.
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