As we prepare to celebrate the life of one of the greatest civil rights leaders of all time, Martin Luther King Jr, I find myself humbled as I reflect on the incredible sacrifices certain people have made on behalf of others. As a student of human behavior, I find people that are free from the common human desire to hoard their resources for themselves or their families intriguing. A few years ago I read a book about Greg Mortenson, Three Cups of Tea. Now although there have been questions regarding some unethical use of the foundation’s money on Greg’s part in the last couple of years, at the time I was incredibly moved by the way this explorer devoted his entire life to building schools with the primary goal of educating young Pakistani girls. I admired his goal of building literacy and peace, one school at a time.
Greg could build an entire school for $12,000. At the time I read the book, we had just taken a trip to Disney World with the kids. I remember thinking about the thousands of dollars we spent for 10 days of entertainment which were now over. I felt incredibly selfish for spending so much money with no bigger purpose than nice memories for my family. In that moment, I was driven towards making a personal sacrifice. I decided to forgo one of my biggest addictions in life – my 3 pump, non-fat, no-foam grande vanilla latte from Starbucks. I calculated that the $30 I spend most weeks at Starbucks equates to over $1500 a year! Wow. By forgoing my daily Starbucks and sending the money to Greg Mortenson, I could build a school for girls in 8 years. I’m ashamed to say that my effort only lasted about 8 days. Geneticists have actually identified a gene for altruism1. I evidently didn’t inherit it. L Like many Americans, my family and I continue to enjoy way more privileges than most other people around the world.
I often feel ashamed when I compare my level of personal sacrifice with those that do more, when in reality this is just a different manifestation of the sin of envy. Instead of wasting energy wishing that I had enough altruism to give up my comfortable life in the northwest suburbs and direct all of my resources to someone else’s great cause, I can stop judging or blaming myself and focus on what I CAN do, and try my best. I was not programed to live in a hut in Africa, or sacrifice all of my personal resources to some greater cause. But I was blessed with traits that have enabled me to develop expertise in both medicine and psychology, which gives me opportunities to help others in a variety of different ways. For this, I am very grateful.
I love identifying other people’s gifts and pointing them out. I do this because I know we all have a human tendency to agonize over our weaknesses and failures instead of celebrating our strengths and accomplishments. I also know I feel great when people make me feel special, and so I try to do this for others whenever I can.
The action I witnessed that inspired this posting was that of Scotty Forester and his friends Abe and Jeep, 16 and 17 year old high school students. On one of the surprise 55 degree days we had this week, I left work early to take my 3 year old and 7 year old sons to the park. The boys were immediately drawn to the hockey rink where Scotty, Abe, and Jeep had suited up in their Blackhawks gear to also enjoy the surprisingly warm weather. My seven year old, Scott, who loves to play and watch every sport he encounters, sat on the side of the rink intensely watching the action in his new Derek Rose jersey from Santa. Completely unexpectedly, the boy we came to know as Scotty skated over and said, “Hey Rose, do you think I could get some help out here?” I’ve never seen my son’s eyes get so big as he glanced over his shoulder with obvious thoughts of “who me”??? The smile on his face when he realized he was about to have an opportunity to play with the BIG boys was priceless. The boys brought out an extra stick and showed Scott how to hold it and shoot. They then included him in a game of two-on-two where they made sure Scott felt accomplished and proud. As the sun set and it was time to take Scott home, I thanked the boys for their kind, nurturing act, and made sure I went home with their contact information to use as a future babysitting resource for my 3 boys. I’ve spent the week wondering if those three boys have ANY idea how much their small act of kindness made a difference in my son’s life. He’s been glowing over the experience all week, and drew the picture I’ve attached. I think this is his personal way to “scrapbook” a special memory.
Random acts of kindness like this remind me how powerful we all are to make a difference in someone else’s life. I’m encouraged by the fact that we don’t all have to be Martin Luther King Jr or Greg Mortenson to make this world a better place. I strongly believe that we have the influence to create positive change in the world by doing our best to impact every life we touch with acceptance, love, and kindness. Even the simple act of holding a door open for a person laden down with strollers or packages could make a difference in someone’s day that we might find hard to believe. It’s also important to remember that those who act the most “unlovable” are probably the most in need of kindness or affirmation.
So I would love to hear about a “random act of kindness” that you’ve witnessed or experienced. With all the negative things we see or hear going on in the world, I think we are all empowered by stories of small things that any of us could do to make a difference. J
Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time, Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, 2006 Penguin Books