Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Striving for Greatness

My boys still talk about the hamburger guy, though it's been years since that day.

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?

For more information about this book, please see the other sites on the TLC Book Tour.


  1. The book sounds inspiring. I'm curious, are there religious overtones interwoven?

  2. Sounds like a book that would inspire us to be better people.

  3. Roger Ebert on elevation:

  4. Christina, I would say no, because the text doesn't emphasize any particular religious belief. However, God is definitely mentioned by some of the people interviewed.

  5. Rich, thanks, I enjoyed that article. I kept thinking about movies when I was digesting the book--so many of the most popular films involve a hero committing a selfless act for someone else, or to save the world. I think viewers, like Ebert, are seeking that feeling of Elevation. Do people seek out books for the same reason? Maybe that's why thrillers are so popular.

  6. I once gave two hitchhiking bums a ride from Wichita to Oklahoma City. When I let them in the car, they said "You shouldn't pick up hitchhikers - it is dangerous." They were nice guys, but VERY smelly. And I took their advice and never picked up hitchhikers again.

  7. Thanks Lenore, you reminded me that I meant to include that question in my post: what's the nicest thing you've ever done for someone? I've added it now. (I've never picked up a hitchhiker in the U.S. Very brave of you!)

  8. I think it happened during my serious dip into the new age/ self-help/spiritual wave of the 90s that I consciously decided to not to think about the consequences of what I did for someone beyond doing it because I felt it was right and good.

    I have done some things for others and in hindsight they were risky but I wasn't thinking but acting on what my conscience told me was right.

    I've run up to cars during accidents prepared to do cpr or mouth-to-mouth (I'd do even with the risk of lawsuit or exposure to HIV). I have helped people out of cars after crashes.

    I've driven a mother with children stranded with a broken car on a freeway to a gas station.

    I took in a young woman for a few days because she needed a place to stay.

    I helped a woman escape out of house (her husband locked her in) and took her to a shelter.

    Not long ago I drove a woman and daughter from the airport (after clocking out) to downtown Detroit because they had no money. I bought them food, deposited them at the bus station and then drove 45 miles in the opposition direction home.

    It's odd sharing these stories but the truth each time, I did these things without hesitation. Afterwards if you asked me why I'd say I'd want someone to do it for me or someone I loved. I've never been harmed or afraid. Sometimes I have said a little prayer. I figure if I'm doing good, God will protect me.

    I believe part of our purpose is to help each other. I hope I don't sound odd or foolish or proud.

  9. I absolutely believe that I am here to make a difference in people's lives. My biggest fear is not making a difference.

    As a teacher, every single day I had the opportunity to impact children's lives and help be a positive role model for them and help guide them. It was the most rewarding experience I could have done. You did the same for your boys when you gave that man a cheeseburger. They saw what a difference even a 99 cent meal could make. You have forever influenced them to do something good for others in the world because they saw how well it worked that day. You did do something above and beyond and for that your children will always respect you for it (even if they deny this as teenagers ;))

  10. Wonderful stories, Susan, thanks for sharing. Sounds like you've had a lot of opportunity to make a difference.

    Rebecca, Teachers can have a huge impact in the lives of kids--for better or for worse. It's such a privilege and responsibility to work with kids, isn't it?

  11. wow, I'm humbled. I know I've done 'nice' things for people (and animals) but I don't think I've done heroic things.
    Does striving to have a good attitude on a daily basis count? Sometimes just smiling makes a world of good.

  12. Care, Don't sell yourself short: you substitute taught in middle school, which many people would put into the Heroic category. And yes, a smile and a good attitude on a daily basis counts for a LOT, in my book.

  13. Care,

    I don't think anyone sets out to do something heroic, well, except teachers. You know you're walking into chaos. And middle school? You're a brave woman.

  14. Hi Ali,

    I love that your boys still remember the hamburger guy. What a great lesson for them. I used your post to kick-start a post of my own. Just wanted to let you know. =)


  15. This is a great post! I hope it makes the short list for the BBAW Best Post category. I will definitely vote for it if it does!

    (But I think there is something wrong with the link to this post in your recent Sunday Salon post -- it didn't work when I clicked it and I had to search for this.)


  16. Very Informative! This blog is great source of information which is very useful for me. Thank you very much for sharing this!

    CPR in Wichita