seeking human kindness

People are overwhelmingly trustworthy and generous.  ~ Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist

holding-handsSo as I mentioned in a recent post, littlest love and I have been reading The Odyssey together.  (Her idea, I swear!)  As much as this is an epic poem chronicling Odysseus’ adventures on his return home to his family in Ithaca, it is also a story of its people and their culture–the palpable interconnectedness between them and the divine, their sense of fate, destiny, their own humility and their obligation to honor one another with kindness and hospitality.  Part of the joy of any story is that imaginative act of being transported–and we are loving journeying through this mythical land of kings and goddesses, gilded palaces and warm Aegean breezes.  Homer’s seductive Dawn, with her rose-red fingers . . . .

So we’ve finally reached Book 4–the last chapter of Telemachus’ journey–and littlest has been attentively listening each night as Telemachus travels from one kingdom to the next in search of news of his father.  She loves the interplay between Athena and the mortals and I suspect enjoys imagining her in disguise among the courtly atmosphere.  And perhaps she’s even enjoying the language and the other-worldliness as much as I am.  The way Telemachus is cared for and welcomed. The way his hosts greet him with wide open arms and offer him seats of honor at their tables, the best cuts of meat, their finest wines.  Why, he’s even bathed and anointed by his royal hosts’ most beautiful daughters–and they don’t even know who he is!  He’s an uninvited guest–a complete stranger–and even when wandering into an elaborate wedding feast, the hosts drop everything they are doing and rush to greet him and offer him hospitality.  Help yourselves to food, and welcome! says Menelaus.  Once you’ve dined we’ll ask you who you are.  Does that even happen anymore?!  I suspect if you crashed a wedding banquet in Beverly Hills today, you’d be swiftly escorted to the curb.  No Cristal and caviar for you, and certainly no hot oil rub downs so sorry Charley.  Buh bye.  And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

We certainly have devolved into a culture that is immediately suspicious of strangers and selective with our generosity, haven’t we?  I don’t pretend to offer any theories but only know that, even though I like to think of myself as charitable and kind, I have grown hardened to that woman walking up and down the median with the sign reading Help! Need bus ticket home. Only $50 short.  I look in her eyes and see the dark circles of addiction.  A hooded sweatshirt covers her stringy hair, but I can tell she’s only about twenty years old.  A bus ticket my ass, I’m thinking.  And I can watch everyone else thinking the same thing, too, as they turn away from her.  We tell ourselves,  If I give her money, she’s going to spend it on drugs.  But as I type this right now I know that I should be more generous with her, that even if I gave her money and she did spend it on drugs, the gesture alone would extend some kindness to her.  And if enough people did that, maybe she’d grow more hopeful . . . .  But yet I never roll the window down.  She’ll just mock me and call me a sucker,  I tell myself as I pull out of the grocery store parking lot and head off to pick up my daughter from school, a brown paper bag in the backseat piled high with canned goods bound for the local food bank.  As I drive past women like her, I often wonder, if only she held an honest sign that read Forgotten: need drugs to numb the pain, anything helps, would I be more generous?

I think we are a suspicious cynical people when it comes to strangers, especially strangers that seem in the most need of our help.  We are selective and direct our acts of charity to known communities and organizations rather than to unfamiliar people, I think because we don’t want to feel cheated or duped or vulnerable.  Reading Homer with my littlest love is making me wonder if there isn’t some small way we can try to let go of some of that fear and be more hospitable, kind and generous.  To look at the Homeless Vet Needs Work sign and see instead, Lonely and Cast Aside.

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called Craigslist Joe, which was about this very notion of hospitality.  In the film, unemployed twentysomething Joe Garner decides to travel the country for a month with no money or car or cell phone contacts.  He vows only to use the internet swap meet site Craigslist to connect with people in hopes he will find work, food and shelter from the strangers he meets.  It’s a spiritual quest of sorts intended to test our capacity for kindness and generosity.  Now, Joe looks nothing like a wan-eyed meth addict.  There’s nothing counterculture about him–no tattoos, no piercings, no patchouli or dread locks.  He’s a clean, well-educated suburban kid with a cameraman in tow, not to mention a two-parent safety net and a living room full of friends to welcome him home after this experiment is over, so of course he’s not bound to draw suspicion on the road.  While this may be a small flaw in the film, I don’t think it detracts from his journey in any way because what you see much more than him are the strangers he meets.

His plan is simple:  he looks for community on Craigslist, and once he connects with a person or group, he asks for their hospitality.  He answers all kinds of ads–advertisements for free dance classes, calls for open mic comedians, requests for tutoring or soup kitchen volunteers.  He shows up and participates in the activity and then hopes he can find someone willing to put him up for the night and share a meal with him.  What you see in the film is stranger after stranger inviting him into their home.  He also uses Craigslist to locate drivers looking for travel companions, and these take him from LA to Portland and Seattle, across to Chicago and then on to New York, down through Florida and New Orleans, and then back to San Francisco, which I am sad to say is the only city that shut him down and forced him to sleep on the street.  In each of these other cities, he meets kind and generous people who shelter and feed him.

Are we at a place in our society with you know the technology of the internet and websites and human interaction where we can take care of each other? ~ Joe Garner

It’s a remarkable concept for a documentary, and as I watched the film, I was conscious of how each of his hosts seemed a little off the grid, some more so than others.  They were eccentric or lonely or cast aside in some way and perhaps in need of his companionship.  They were people I would be suspicious of–POWs as I have been known to call them– pieces of work I’d size up and dismiss as too much trouble.  But Craigslist Joe was forced to put his trust in them and opened himself up to their stories, and we see instead of their strangeness, their kindness and humor and generosity.

Some of their interactions were deeply moving.  In New York at Christmastime, Joe decides to begin placing his own ads for volunteers so that he can provide assistance to anyone who needs it, and one of the best portions of the film is a scene where he and another volunteer visit the home of a woman dying of cancer who posted an ad asking for help of any kind.  They have no idea what they have signed up for and arrive at her apartment ready for anything, only to discover she is not only suffering from cancer but is a mentally ill hoarder with quite a story to tell.  When you witness the kindness they show one another, it will remind you that these sorts of meaningful encounters can only happen if we put aside judgment and instead are open and trusting and generous with one another.  Because aren’t we all in some way, each of us, holding a sign that reads Seeking Human Kindness?

Craigslist JoeThis was by far and away the most inspiring experience of my life–the generosity of people–the stories they shared–the connections I made in one month were so deep . . . just meeting everyone and telling them my story and the journey–having people invite a complete stranger into their homes and feed me and invite me to go out–it was truly inspiring to know that we can take care of each other.  ~ Joe Garner AKA “Craigslist Joe”

 

Add Craigslist Joe to your Netflix queue

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service is a strength, love

Thank my littlest love for this story that came to me during my rainy commute.  I was sitting in the traffic thinking about our dinner conversation the night before, and I knew I had something to write about.  Understand the context behind this conversation was the fact that littlest, a skeptical naysayer who never signs up for anything and wants to chase dandelion clocks all day, spoke up and told us how she had volunteered to be the 5th grade class representative for student council because, she said, she wanted to be someone important.  I almost fell over because I’ve been trying to find something for her, some thing she could do to step up and take part in.  Leadership and service are family values we often talk about around the dinner table, and this was so out of character for her!  Imagine a kid who’s got that look perfected every time you make a suggestion, tucked chin knitted eyebrows crossed arms — a look that screams NO! WAY!  Well, she seemed to have slipped a finger under a new leaf and I thought, maybe I could take this opportunity to help her turn it over.  Here’s the conversation we had a few minutes later:

ME: You know, Blythe, Deacon Patrick says if you’re nervous about becoming an altar server we could do it together.  We could both be up there, and I could help you until you got more comfortable.

B: No thanks.

M: But, it looks sort of fun.  You get to wear an alb and use all those special things.  You’re really important.  You get to serve the priest on the altar and help wash his hands and . . .

B: I do not want to serve the priest.  He can get his own things and wash his own hands.  I’m too rebellious for that.

Oh, I just love her.  The quirky attitude and quick wit–how she makes me laugh and smile all the time.  And she’s got it all figured out, doesn’t she.  I mean, doesn’t she have a point?  So many working mothers spend much of our married lives resisting domestic stereotypes and encouraging our daughters to be independent, equal contributors to their community.  I vividly recall telling the man I keep the first week we were married that I would not be ironing his shirts like his mother dutifully does each week for his father. Let’s just get these expectations squared away from day one shall we: there’ll be no freshly pressed shirts hanging from the doorway in the laundry room; oh, and I don’t do dishes.

This is who I am.  This is how I was raised by my father, who encouraged me to keep up with my brothers and never once gave me the idea that because I was a girl, I was confined to any rigid roles.  And I’m still her.  I believe in feminist ideals and know that there’s little in this world I could not do by myself, maybe better, but I know I also have a choice.  Certainly it’s my hope my daughters will be able to change a tire, bait a hook or chase down any bully in a pencil skirt and heels, too.  But there’s another side to me that’s hard to reconcile with this hitch-up-your-skirts and hit-the-road girl sometimes and that I seem to be having an equally hard time cultivating in my sweet sassy thing.  I’m kind of loving, and I love being kind because it makes me happy.  And for me kindness means making sacrifices and being vulnerable and yes, littlest love, sometimes it even means doing the dishes.

 We are all here on earth to help others: what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.

~ W.H. Auden

 


It’s complicated!  But I’m grateful for many who offer wonderful commentary on the status of women in the Catholic Church, like this article via Another Voice.

Pair this thought with a reading of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist.

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“Toss Roxane Gay’s collection of witty, thoughtful essays, Bad Feminist into your tote bag. With musings on everything from Sweet Valley High to the color pink, Gay explores the idea of being a feminist, even when you’re full of contradictions.” (Self, “Smart beach-read alert”)

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keep me reasonably gentle o lord

I came across this prayer today, full of self-deprecating wit and wisdom.  Would that I and anyone else in occasional need of gentle reminders toward kindness and humility should print it out and tape it to our foreheads.

Prayer of an Anonymous Abbess:

Lord, you know better than myself that I am growing older and will soon be old. Keep me from becoming too talkative, and especially from the unfortunate habit of thinking that I must say something on every subject and at every opportunity.

Release me from the idea that I must straighten out other peoples’ affairs. With my immense treasure of experience and wisdom, it seems a pity not to let everybody partake of it. But you know, Lord, that in the end I will need a few friends.

Keep me from the recital of endless details; give me wings to get to the point.

Grant me the patience to listen to the complaints of others; help me to endure them with charity. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains — they increase with the increasing years and my inclination to recount them is also increasing.

I will not ask you for improved memory, only for a little more humility and less self-assurance when my own memory doesn’t agree with that of others. Teach me the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be wrong.

Keep me reasonably gentle. I do not have the ambition to become a saint — it is so hard to live with some of them — but a harsh old person is one of the devil’s masterpieces.

Make me sympathetic without being sentimental, helpful but not bossy. Let me discover merits where I had not expected them, and talents in people whom I had not thought to possess any. And, Lord, give me the grace to tell them so.

Amen

― Margot Benary-Isbert

And when all else fails, there’s always the ever graceful, gentle wit of Ann Landers: “Don’t accept your dog’s admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful.”

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