I don't usually give money to panhandlers, always telling myself that I would, if only there was some guarantee that a dollar handed over would make a life easier, rather than contributing to an addiction. So when the bedraggled young man hovering near the door into Burgerville asked if I had any money so he could buy a hamburger, I paused.
"Do you want a hamburger, or a cheeseburger?"
He hesitated, then looked me in the eye for the first time and spoke with conviction. "A cheeseburger."
My kids and I went inside. The line was long, and by the time we got our food I wondered if he'd moved on, if I'd called him on his bluff. But he was still there, duffel bag at his feet, ignored by every passer-by. He looked startled when I spoke to him. He looked suddenly shy. He looked like somebody's little boy all grown up with no place to go.
"Still want that cheeseburger?" I handed it over, now wishing I'd gotten a bigger size, that I'd ordered a drink to go with it, and French fries. I accepted his thanks and went back to my boys, who had thirty-six questions about the man and who he was and why he was there and why I bought him a cheeseburger and whether I'd done things like that before.
In the book Something Beyond Greatness, Judy Rodgers and Gayatri Naraine examine stories of people who've gone beyond the realm of the simple good deed; people who have risked their life to save somebody, or significantly altered their own life to make a difference in the world.
In these beautiful stories, we began to make out the contours of an emerging pattern. It had three elements: 1) seeing with love, 2) acting with the heart, and 3) the mystery of destiny—right place, right time.There are plenty of stories and lots of information in this 122-paged volume, but the section that really stuck with me was the research of psychologist Jonathon Haidt, who studies moral emotions. Haidt describes the feeling people get when they witness someone giving help to another in need:
Elevation is a warm, uplifting feeling that people experience when they see unexpected acts of human goodness, kindness, and compassion. It makes a person want to help others and to become a better person himself or herself.No, a middle class mother of two who buys a 99 cent burger for a stranger is hardly representing Greatness, much less Something Beyond it. It's not even the nicest thing I've ever done. So why did the book bring it to mind?
Maybe because I experienced the same three elements, though on a smaller scale, that Rodgers and Naraine found in the acts of greatness that they studied. Or because the fact that my kids still think about it is evidence of its impact on their psyches. Whatever the reason, Something Beyond Greatness inspired me to open my eyes wider as I trundle through life, not to wait for the "right place, right time" to present itself, but to seek out opportunities to see with love and act with my heart.
What's the nicest thing you've ever done for someone?
The Soundtrack: Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?
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