Tag Archives: Charity

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….

How Much Is Enough?

I spoke with my daughter this morning about upcoming preparations for the Christmas holiday and the things that are currently occupying her time.  Like the rest of us, she and her husband are busy with holiday tasks (some enjoyable and some less so), now with less than week remaining.  As both an attorney and a social worker, she also cited a few of the difficult circumstances with which she has become familiar over recent weeks: families with little to eat, children with few prospects for a Santa gift and parents who continue to fend off the stigma of unemployment during a very difficult employment environment (despite the assertions of certain political candidates).

At one point in the conversation, she observed her own discomforts of late, saying that despite the charitable gifts that she and her husband had made thus far during the season, she thought the gifts to be inadequate, insufficient, too insignificant to have any meaning for those who are in great need.   She wondered aloud if she was doing enough, whether she could be doing something more meaningful to make a difference in someone else’s life.  I noted that the tone of her voice had dropped rather dramatically by the time she came to this juncture as she envisioned just how enormous the “needs of others” really are at home in the U.S. and around the world.

Such reflections are not uncommon, perhaps especially at this time of year.  Yesterday morning my physician mused about the very same point, saying that he thinks of himself as an active “peace and justice guy” but  speculating about the threshold of sufficiency.  “Do I literally give the shirt off my back?” he wondered.  “How do I handle that with my own family?”  Wow!  Quite suddenly I have found myself surrounded by deep philosophical and moral questions relating to the poor.  Unfortunately, my own answers feel as insufficient as my daughter’s charity seems to her.

I suppose these kinds of topics come up due to the work that Winds of Peace Foundation has undertaken in working with the very poor in Nicaragua.  But I have yet to develop a satisfying answer to those who wonder if and how they could possibly make a dent in the needs of the world.  How can I even begin to clarify that question for others when it’s the same nagging uncertainty that I experience myself when confronted with the economic and social injustices that exist in the lives of those with whom we partner?  But as unsatisfying as it may be, I have acquired a perspective which at least allows me sufficient calm to get to sleep at night.

It is this: we are only and fully capable  of doing what we can do.  For Bill and Melinda Gates, the scope of monetary capacity is enormous and their resources can change the landscape of an entire region.  For a grade-school child, a visit to the local food shelf or nursing home can touch someone in ways that money cannot.  The nature or size of the gift is not how it’s value is measured.  Rather, it is measured against what we are capable of being or doing in someone else’s life.  It’s a cliched notion, of course, but it has only become trite through its universal and eternal truth.

I like to think of us as existing on a continuum, where every human being is placed according to his/her capacity to give, whether money, goods, time, spirit, or whatever else we have been blessed with.  We see ourselves as somehow being “ranked” on this continuum, thus frequently gazing upward and fantasizing about what it must be like to be “higher up” on the placements.  We fantasize about what we might be willing to do if only we possessed the money, the skills, the connections or the temperament of those higher up on the scale.  But what we must not lose sight of is that at that exact same moment, there are others on that continuum who are gazing upward at us, as well, and fantasizing about what they might be willing to do if only they could be in our shoes. Our reality is that we all have more to give than we do, more time than we admit, and a capacity for greater sacrifices to make without pain.

And perhaps greater responsibility than we like to admit.  The answer to the dilemma is to be found in our own hearts and minds, and will therefore be as different as we are from one another.  What we owe to ourselves- and the rest of the world around us- is an honest, thoughtful consideration of the quandry.  That exercise won’t guarantee the “right” answer, but we’ll never come even close to a right answer without asking the question….