One of my best memories took place on a Saturday night in rainy San Antonio. My parents and I walked through the downpour under our large umbrella, bundled and warm, just laughing and talking after a delicious meal on the river walk. We passed a bench, and at first, I thought someone had left his coat on it. Looking closer, I realized it was a man, huddling to stay warm as he tried to sleep. Immediately, guilt struck me in the chest, and I had a strong desire to help him. I didn’t have any money on my person at the time, but I was carrying the leftovers from the restaurant; the food was still warm and fresh. He startled when I tapped him on the shoulder. As I shyly handed him the food with a quiet “good night” he smiled at me and offered me such a sincere “thank you” that I felt it in the darkness.
Even today, I still carry that gratitude with me. The ability to help people is such a privilege; to alleviate pain and burden is an eye-opening gift. Even more than giving me a feeling of pride, it also gave me insight that the things I once thought were important may not be so significant. One summer a few years past, I fundraised rather successfully to donate money to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I remember feeling accomplished and proud, but when you give money to charities, there exists a certain disconnect. After all, I saw neither the equipment in which the hospital invested nor any research in which they advanced. I cannot tell you where that money went or even if it made any direct difference for the patients in the hospital.
I am not saying monetary donations are bad or unhelpful because these acts can make a big difference. But many people don’t have sufficient means to give. Money isn’t the only resource society can donate to others less fortunate. Helping others is not about who can give more or who can make a bigger difference. It is one person approaching someone else and saying, “Here Friend, I see you need help. Let me take off some of your burden.”
I have seen poverty and suffering close up. When I lived in China, the homeless were ubiquitous. One especially poignant memory took place when I was only four or five. In front of a government building, there was an emaciated man, approximately seventy years old, kneeling in front of stoic security guards. The blue fabric of his shirt and trousers faded to a soft grey, and his shoes were collapsing on the soles of his feet. He said nothing and begged no one; he simply stood on his knees in front of the officers. People spared him no more than a glance before walking on, and my grandma quickly towed me away from the scene. Nevertheless, one glance was enough for me; fifteen years later, I still remember it.
Now, I have no lofty dreams of achieving world peace or ending world hunger. The only weapon in my arsenal includes an inherited strong-headed stubbornness *waves to mom*. Being a decent person is as good a place as any to start. Try a litter harder, be a little better. But what does it really mean to be a “good person?” What do I have to do to achieve this status of “goodness?” Do I give away money? Volunteer? Give up my phone? Renounce my worldly possessions and join a convent? The short answer is no. Making yourself poor and miserable won’t really make anyone else feel better.
Dedicate some time to getting to others and their struggles. There are times when people just need to talk and be heard, and a simple acknowledgement can make a difference. As for your phone, many charities and organizations would be completely useless without technology. It is an asset, not necessarily a mark of luxury or a source of guilt. Maybe you don’t know how to start nonprofits, can’t donate, or you feel overwhelmed, or simply are not at a place where you have time to focus on social issues, that’s ok too. At the heart of the matter, it’s taking a step back and saying, “you need help, I can help you.” Whether that means holding the door or giving a ride to someone. I see you, and I understand—you matter.
It is incredibly easy to forget other people and get caught up in the stress of one’s own life; therefore, most leave common decency on the backburner, forgotten. People should know the importance of helping others. Every individual is important and deserving. Giving small parts of yourself—time, money, skills—is the first and most basic step in making this a world better place.