Cries for Help

Prepared to respond to an emergency.

I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever called 9-1-1. Memory may have a way of playing tricks on me, but I can’t recall another instance. Either way, I won’t forget the incident anytime soon.

I walk to the office of a client to discuss a new project with them. The stretch of unseasonable warmth continues, and the day could not be better. Sun shines, blossoms bloom, and birds sing. Squirrels chase each other through the trees.

I have plenty of time. No hurry. No hurry at all.

Four blocks from my destination, I approach a man with a walker. I wish him good day. But unlike most people I greet on the sidewalk, he doesn’t simply return the greeting and continue on his way.

“Could you call 9-1-1 for me?” he whispers weakly.

Whoa. “What’s wrong?”

He tells me his MS is flaring up and he needs an ambulance. Without hesitating, I make the phone call.

“Hello, I’m on the corner of Greenview and Fargo with a gentleman who requests medical assistance. He says his MS is flaring up.”

“How old do you think he is?”

I ask the man his age.

“Thirty-four,” he replies.

Without thinking, I repeat his answer to the woman on the phone. Though glancing at the man again, he must surely be older than that – maybe in his fifties. Oh well, it’s not a big deal.

The lady on the phone verified our location, gave me instructions not to give the man any food or water, confirmed my phone number in case she needed to call me, and told me someone would be on the way.

I waited with the man.

***

Fifteen minutes later, as I near the offices for my meeting, I pass a man on crutches. He asks me for a dollar. Without hesitation, I tell him not today and continue on my way.

***

so glad to be of help
so glad to do the right thing
what?
who is this?
you want a dollar?
no
i can’t help right now

Why?

Why do I help one man and not the other? Why do I give attention and empathy to the first man but not the second?

Was it the urgency of the situation? Calling an ambulance is an immediate need. Giving a dollar is not as urgent. If he got the money later, he would probably be alright. Maybe could get a meal at a shelter. But I didn’t take the time to be sure. I didn’t ask the man what his need was. I just chose to brush him off.

Was it that I didn’t have enough time to respond to the second man? Helping the first man meant I didn’t have much time left before my meeting. But really, how much time does it take to say hello, chat for a bit, pull a dollar out of my wallet, and continue on my way? Not much.

Was it that helping the second man cost me more? Giving up money means surrendering the opportunity to use it in other ways. Although, thanks to the blessings I’ve received, a dollar is not a high cost to me. But giving isn’t the only way to help him. I could ask him his name, say hello and acknowledge his presence.

Was it that the first situation broke my perception of normal? As a human being, I have a tendency to notice what is unusual or out of place. My brain is wired to look for objects and situations that don’t match the patterns in my head. Someone asking me to call an ambulance is not an everyday occurrence. When it happens, I pay attention.

Was it that I felt more responsible for the first man? If he was in genuine need of urgent care, and I refused to help him, then I have no excuse. I was there. I was able to get him the help he needed. To say no would be to directly say his life isn’t worth saving. Excuses are harder to make when the direct consequences of your actions are so visible.

I suspect, as with many questions in life, the answer is a blend of possibilities. It’s not just one reason or another. It’s complicated.

***

i want to help
i want to make a difference
but my response is
so often
to not help
to not make
a difference
it’s a good thing that i
can change that response

What if I want to change my reaction to the second man? What if I decide that men and women such as he deserve my help, or at the least, my attention? How do I push myself to greater generosity and empathy?

The harsh reality is that I have people asking me for money nearly every time I walk around the city. These men and women often fade into the background of my attention. I push them to the periphery of my mind like the countless advertisements I see. I ignore their pleas for help unless I make a conscious effort to do otherwise.

Part of that means calling out what I’m afraid of. I fear opening myself to their suffering. I fear the added responsibility. I fear my actions won’t help or may even make the situation worse. But if I want to act, I have to face my fears.

Part of that means changing my default response. Instead of saying no right away, I can ask the person their name or how they’re doing. I can choose to engage them as a human being. Doing so shifts the dynamic of the conversation and changes the way I feel about offering – or not offering – assistance. I move from guilt to generosity.

Part of that means setting boundaries and acknowledging that I have finite resources. I can’t help everyone. But there’s lots of people that I can – and want to – assist. Saying no to some people gives me the freedom to say yes to others.

Part of that means accepting failure. No matter what I do, I’m bound to make mistakes. Sometimes, my giving will make the situation worse. Sometimes, I’m conned by someone who isn’t in need. Sometimes, I’ll give and the gift won’t be appreciated. Sometimes, I won’t give to someone who really needs my help. But that’s OK.

All I can do is strive to do right in each situation. Sometime’s I’ll mess up, and other times I won’t act when I should. But I’m willing to try. I’m willing to face the complexity.

***

sometimes in life
events are more more complex
than first glances show

As I sat with the man, waiting for the ambulance, a lady came from across the street and asked him what he was doing. It turned out that he checked in at a nearby health clinic the night before and could have asked for help there. We waited together until the emergency dispatch arrived. Confident the man was in good hands, I wished him well and continued on my way.

So maybe I didn’t need to help him. He had people to look after him nearby. But I didn’t know that beforehand. Sometimes you just have to make a judgment call. And sometimes, it’s complicated.

###

PHOTO: Prepared to respond to an emergency. Wheaton, IL.

A Day For Love

Flowering generosity.

Today is one of my favorite holidays of the year. It’s a chance to celebrate the spirit of love. It’s an opportunity to honor someone I care about. It’s a day to give extravagant gifts.

Happy Generosity Day.

***

If so much of being human is to
With another be completely open
Why is it then that what we often do
Is to let no be the response spoken
When need for help comes to us with a cry
Instead we could show our humanity
When need for kindness passes us nearby
Instead we could show generosity
Say yes to the man standing by the street
Say yes to tipping more than our whole bill
Say yes to blessing all those that we meet
Say yes to giving though we’ve reached your fill
And having opened wider than before
We are now able to be so much more

I spend a lot of time saying no to others. When a homeless man on the street corner asks for change, I often say no. When a canvasser for a charity interrupts me on the sidewalk and asks for a donation, I usually say no.

Sure, I don’t have the money to give to every person. But the danger is that I close myself down. The worry is that I say no so often that it becomes my mode of operation. The risk is that I see the world through the lens of scarcity.

To counter that danger, I have to say yes sometimes. I have to intentionally open myself to generosity.

That’s the spirit of Generosity Day. Just for one day, say yes to every request that comes your way. Just for one day, give unreasonable tips – $10 on a $2 coffee. Just for one day, give extravagantly.

But Generosity Day is more than opening yourself through giving. It is also remembering those who give to you.

***

i love to ride trains
unless the place i’m going
doesn’t have train tracks

Recently, I bid farewell to my grandfather. My whole family came together to remember him, to tell stories of his impact, and pay tribute to his life. Most of the events – the viewing, the funeral, and the burial – took place in the suburbs of Chicago. Getting there and back is possible by train, but not without inconvenience.

The trips would take significantly longer – twice as long in some cases. We’d have to get rides from other family members – timing the pick up times with the train schedule. And with my wife due any day, we’d have a harder time getting back to the city if she went into labor.

As much as I love public transportation, it wasn’t a good option.

But someone in our community answered our call for help. She lent us her car for the entire weekend. What a blessing that was.

Instead of having to worry about scheduling our time around train travel, we were able to focus on being with family. We were able to give attention to the memory of my grandfather. We were able to say goodbye without an extra stress in the way.

no obligation
to return something you found
that another lost

Heading downtown one morning, I sat in the corner of a packed train. Tired from yet again being up too late the night before, I fell asleep. So peaceful.

“Do not attempt to board the train, doors closing.” I jerked awake. Oh no. It was my stop.

I jumped up, grabbed my bag, and hopped out the door just before it closed. Phew. I woke up just in time.

Walking up the stairs toward the exit, I stuck my hand in my pocket. It was empty. Wait a minute, wasn’t my wallet in that pocket? The roar of the train faded into the distance – no chance of going back to get it.

But half an hour later, I got a phone call.

“Hello. Is this Joshua?” a stranger asked. She had found my wallet on the train. And instead of taking the money, she called me to give it back.

That afternoon, I went to the gym where she worked. She pulled out the wallet and handed it to me. I said thank you. She smiled.

time and attention
given by you to my art
an undeserved gift

Every week, after a several days of writing, I have a story ready to post here on the Bright Army. The post is done. All I have to do is hit publish.

I pause. Will anyone read it? Will anyone like it?

But it’s too late to turn back. I don’t have not enough time to write a different post, and I don’t want to break my streak. So I hit publish. The story goes live.

And you do read it. You give me two of your most precious resources: time and attention. Sometimes you even comment. You add your stories to what I’ve written. You build upon my work. You make it better.

All of these are gifts. I do not deserve them. But they’re given to me anyways.

***

rain falls down upon
the flower of the meadow
blessing it with life
the flower of the meadow
a beauty for those passing

Generosity changes the giver. But it also changes the recipient.

I open to the other person. I form a bond with them. Most of the time, I have no ability to repay the gifts given to me – I’m unable to match the generosity with an equivalent act. So all that is left to do is to draw closer to the giver.

I open to gratitude. For all I have, I deserve nothing – absolutely nothing. When I remember, I appreciate the abundance I’ve been given. I become mindful of all the blessings I have.

I open to generosity. I may not be able to repay the gifts shown to me. I may not be able live up to the debt of gratitude. But I can pass the generosity along. I can become a blessing to others just as others are a blessing to me.

***

So on this Generosity Day – on this day of saying yes – open your heart to giving. But also open your heart to the acts of generosity shown to you. And then it will, truly, be a day for love.

***

What about you? What are some acts of generosity that you’ve received? How have they affected you?

###

PHOTO: Flowering generosity. Slovenia.

PS: For those of you who are wondering, no baby yet.

A Gift of Significance

Don't judge a man by his shoes.

It’s not every day that a homeless man offers you a beer.

Then again, it’s not every day that you give him thirty minutes of your time.

***

Don’t be fooled by his worn out tennis shoe
Or his black and dirty slacks held up by
A sweatshirt tied where a belt should pass through
So preventing pants from falling to his thigh
Don’t be deceived by his baggy sweatshirt
Or ragged overcoat of dusty brown
Spotted here and there with abundant dirt
Mismatching colors that may make you frown
Do not gaze upon the man with blindness
Look instead through generosity’s eyes
Look instead through the sight of sweet kindness
Do not give in to poverty’s disguise
Instead of seeing great depravity
Choose to see his boundless humanity

Returning home after another Taekwondo training session, I make a detour to the grocery store.

Outside the store, a man sits on an overturned crate, asking for money to buy food. My reaction is often to say no. But if I’m not careful, no can become my default way of looking at the world. I can close myself and focus on scarcity. So this time I choose generosity.

“Can I get you some fruit?” I ask him.

“How about a tuna-fish sandwich,” he says.

“How about some fruit,” I reply. A sandwich costs a little more than I want to spend.

“Tuna-fish sandwich?”

“Not today. Can I get you some fruit?”

“OK, an orange then.”

“No problem. I’ll get you an orange.” I smile.

I go into the store and do my shopping, taking time to wander a bit. When I finally make it back outside, the man is gone. Oh well, I guess I have an extra orange now. No harm done.

I start walking toward the train station.

A few minutes later, I run into the man at an intersection, waiting for the light to change. I ask him if he still wants the orange.

“Oh yeah,” he says with a grin.

I put the orange in one of his crates.

“Do you want help carrying your boxes? Where are you headed?” It looked like he was struggling to carry his two crates and case of beer.

“Sure.”

I pick up one of the boxes, and we continue toward the train station. He’s headed in the same direction that I am.

We exchange names and join in conversation. I ask where he lives. We joke about how cold it is – no need to put his beer in a refrigerator. He asks me if I drink.

The walk goes slowly, and I resign myself to missing the next train. He’s an elderly fellow, and has no need to hurry. I appreciate the reminder to slow down.

After I pay his train fare, we climb the stairs to the platform. The train pulls into the station just as we reach the top. There was no need to worry. Together, we ride toward Chicago.

I sit opposite to him on the train as he goes through his boxes, consolidating the day’s haul. “A lucky day,” he mutters to himself. “Luck is hard to come by these days.”

I think of how fortunate I am. I have food, warm clothes, and a home to go back to. I have people that I love, and people that love me. I am alive. It’s a lucky day indeed.

Glancing at the case of beer, the man grins. “I didn’t pay for it.” He looks at me. “Do you drink?”

“Sometimes.”

“OK, good.” He says while pulling out a beer.

“Not right now, but thanks for offering.”

“Oh, no problem.”

Even though I decline his offer, I’m appreciative of his generosity. I’m thankful for his act of kindness.

***

Generosity is at the heart of human connection. It opens you up, and you see others as they truly are. You give them the gift of significance. You acknowledge that they exist – that their lives are valuable.

But what if the sound of carrying a stranger’s boxes terrifies you? What if you want to be more generous? Start small.

Generosity is like a muscle. You have to build it up.

Begin with the people you love. Give to the people you already want to give to. Look for ways that you can offer your time and skill to help them.

Build on previous actions. A few years ago, I started greeting the homeless men and women that I passed on the street. From there, I learned their names. Now, I’m comfortable enough to start a conversation. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next.

With each step, you make someone matter. With each act, you open up your heart a bit more. Even if you only give them a moment – half an hour on a cold, autumn evening – you will bless them.

***

Reaching my stop, I get up.

“Have a blessed night,” I say.

“You too.”

We shake hands.

“Get some sleep.”

“Will do.” With a grin, he lays his head down in a mock snooze.

The train pulls away, and he’s gone. I hope I’ll someday get the opportunity to build on that connection and learn more about his story. Maybe I’ll sit down and have a drink with him.

###

PHOTO: Don’t judge a man by his shoes.

Creating an Attitude of Delight

Hooray for Samosas!

Do you have a food that carries with it memories of a special place or time? Perhaps it was a treat from your youth. You may have had it on a vacation. Or maybe it was something shared with someone you love. Regardless, the food tastes better because of those memories. For much of my extended family, having lived in Africa at some point, samosas are such a food.

At Thanksgiving dinner, we were talking about memories from Kenya. We remembered the people, the fun things we did, and the food – especially the samosas. The conversation eventually moved on, but I didn’t forget it.

And so, at dinner the next day, a few accomplices and I brought out a plate of them. How we kept the whole thing a secret, I’m still not sure. I’m glad we did though. It was worth it.

I shall never forget that moment of delight. “Samosas!” Anticipation gave way to surprise which gave way to joy and excitement and love. Heaven itself is underwritten by moments such as these.

It was a simple gift, and it was beautiful. It also left me full of questions. What was it that made such an act so special? What can we do to make them happen more often? Can one make a life out of that? This is what I’ve come up with:

Delight comes from knowledge of others. In this case, I knew that my family loved samosas. I had the insight to know that such a gift would be a good one. To delight someone we have to know them. And doing that most often requires listening.

Yes, it’s true in my example that they were family and I should know them well. But I know them because of time spent together. I’ve invested in those relationships.

Delight is an act from within. Knowledge alone is not enough. To give the gift of delight takes action. That action isn’t haphazard or random, but is a gift of ourselves. That makes the gift far more valuable than it would be by itself.

Delight doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. Buying the samosas cost less than $25 and only took an hour of my time to pick them up. A smile can make someone’s day, and those are free to give. The price or effort involved isn’t what makes such gifts so special. It’s the emotion and intent behind them. The thought really does count.

One of the best ways to foster an attitude of delight is to delight people. After that evening, I started looking for other opportunities. Slowly, I’m getting better at seeing and acting on them. This website is one such example. A key goal to my writing is to delight you. That’s not to say I reach that goal all the time, but practicing has helped me get better at it.

Delight is about exceeding expectations. Set the bar high. Go above it. Repeat.

Delight is the foundation for a great life. I believe that the best kind of life is one that makes other people matter. That’s what delight is all about. When you delight someone, they become important.

***

Such moments are far too rare, even in my own life. I want to change that. So here’s my challenge to you. Think of a way to delight at least one person this week. It can be a friend, family member, customer, or stranger. It can be as grand or as simple as you like. I’m looking forward to hearing your stories.

I should also note that if you haven’t had a samosa yet, you are missing out. They are a delightful food. And yes, I am completely biased in this matter. For those like me that currently live outside of Kenya, you can often get them at Indian stores and restaurants.

###

Hooray for Samosas! I made this photo of our dog, Prince, at home in Nakuru, Kenya.