Servant Soul

This past week has been filled with stories about holiday shopping, special deals, the frenzy demonstrated by consumers and whether this year will be “better” than last year as measured by dollars spent per shopper.  It can leave me feeling a bit jaded about the holiday season, wondering what happened to the way it all “used to feel.”  And then, the story about New York police officer Larry DiPrimo hit the news, and my season has taken a decidedly different turn.

Officer DiPrimo is the cop who noticed a homeless, shoeless man on the streets of New York and bought the man socks and winter boots to ward off the freezing temperatures.   The event was captured in a photograph taken by a passer-by, a picture which has added a breadth and certain longevity to the act: it has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people by now and the photo itself is already a classic thanks to the Internet.  It’s a story which feels good for obvious reasons, but there is more to this lesson than what appears at face value.

Even more remarkable than the caring act itself was that Officer DiPrimo paid for the items from his own pocket, without expectations of any reimbursement or even any notice.  That the officer would stop to assist a homeless man is a nice story; that he would do so out of personal concern and charity makes it a unique tale.  The civil servants in our lives- police, social workers, counselors- have learned early in their careers that they cannot personally resolve all of the issues in their clients’ lives.  Normally, the most they can do is to facilitate assistance by agencies or others.  But Officer Diprimo felt otherwise.  He decided to solve this one issue for this one homeless man.  It makes all the difference in this story, not only to the man but also to the officer.

Another element to this story which differentiates it from other feel-good tales is to be found in its intended anonymity.  Any of us might be moved to assistance when the glare of camera lights, the suggestion of YouTube fame and instant hero status is at stake.  But DiPrimo acted in the fringes of the lights, unaware that even a single photograph had been taken or that anyone had noticed his gesture.  The motive was selfless and gives life to the adage that “character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”  DiPrimo’s act had a rare purity to it.

Finally, this story contains the element of DiPrimo himself.  Helping vagrants on the sidewalks of New York could be regarded as DiPrimo’s job.  His generosity could be seen as the act of a generous man in sympathy with someone less fortunate, but an act that many of us would like to believe is within us, too.  But DiPrimo not only bought the items but spent his own money for them.  In the giving of the gift he offered himself, as well.  He did not simply leave the newly-purchased items with the man.  DiPrimo actually knelt beside him and helped him to put on the socks and boots, and in that act of giving DiPrimo moved this story to a higher level than it might otherwise have been reported.  The officer’s personal ministrations to a homeless man elevated the narrative to one of heroic proportions.

That’s the reason so many of us have been attracted to the photo and the story behind it.  It resonates with something deep within our hearts that we cannot always identify or explain, but which moves us as surely as any emotion we might ever feel.  We immediately recognize the rightness of the act, the caring that it reflects, a true story which ends- at least on that one night- with the power of love in triumph over despair.  In Officer DiPrimo we want to see a bit of ourselves, we yearn to feel the same compassion and urge to action that we see in him. We know that DiPrimo is no saint, but a man who felt what we sometimes feel. We feel good about this story, as if we had done the act ourselves.  We suddenly recognize- if only for the moment-  that the possibilities for such service are alive and well, somewhere within each of us.

The good news of this seemingly simple news story is that a homeless man was made more comfortable by someone else’s act of caring.  The bigger news is that the servant soul lies within each of us, waiting for its own encounter in whatever streets we may walk….

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