Thursday, June 23, 2011

Point B is the Little Extras

When the man with two canes had fallen over and was lying on the sidewalk leading up from the parking garage to H building at Towson University, I took a step to rush to his aid; but I caught myself and walked away, looking over my shoulder at him as he struggled to regain himself.  I would have helped him, but I didn’t want to offend him.  I didn’t want him to think that because he was handicapped, his feet permanently turned inward and legs barely being able to bend as he walked, I thought he couldn’t take care of himself. 

It was 1994, the height of “political correctness,” with which, as a society in whole, we were being inundated.  So many of us were so self-examining that we questioned every word we uttered and every action we made so as not to offend any of our fellow men, and women, and, therefore seem insensitive.  I was nowhere near the political correctness ring leader, but when suddenly confronted with the man sprawling on the ground, I hesitated, sadly.  As I stepped away, a passing professor hurried to the man’s side, helped him to his feet, brushed him off, and handed him his strewn canes.  In the midst of her care, she looked to down to me and spouted, sealing my shame, “What’s wrong with you!”

In one of Paul’s letters to the Philippians, Paul exclaims, “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”  In simplest terms, be considerate.  Think of the needs of others.  But as a native of the “me” generation, considering others is easier said than done. 

To consider others.

To consciously think of the needs of our fellow human beings and act accordingly.  As I have grown up, and am still in the progress of growing up at age 43, it has taken moments like that man struggling on the ground to guide me away from me in order to consider others.  But what guides me just as much are the considerations of my father.

Generations before my generation, my father was born into what Tom Brokaw coined as “The Greatest Generation.”  It struggled through the depression, conquered in WWII, and rebuilt this nation to be better than it ever was, asking nothing in return and seeking no praise.  My father never had much money, but when he did have a few extra bucks his first thoughts were never of what he could do for himself, always for others.

My dad loved Baltimore, his city.  He would often drive to a part of town, park his car, and just walk and delight in whatever he encountered in his city.  While he often had a point A, he rarely had a point B.  The journey itself was his point B.  Many times I accompanied my dad on these little busman’s holidays, two day trippers embarking on warrens unknown.  I remember it was on one of those jaunts a few days before Christmas we parked the old Impala on Charles Street and began to walk south.

It wasn’t too long before we were approached by a man asking for money.  He was unshaven, soft spoken, and he was dressed in many layers.  My father reached into the inner pocket of his thick down coat and handed the man a white envelope before wishing him a Merry Christmas. 

Over the next couple of hours, this exchange was repeated a few more times.  Some didn’t open the envelopes right away, and with some we had disappeared around a corner right afterward.  I was used to seeing him give what he had in his pockets to others, so I figured there was money in the envelopes.  Eventually, I just asked, “What’s in the envelopes?”
“A card and ten bucks.”
“How many cards are you giving?”
“I can afford five cards.  Whoever asks, he gets a card.”
“Why don’t you just give them money?  Why the card?  I mean, you don’t know them.”
Without breaking his long strides, he answered, “Those people will get money, but isn’t it nice to get a little something extra?  Isn’t it nice to get something that shows someone thought enough of you to do a little something more?”  And on we walked.

With only 50 extra dollars, my dad did exactly what Paul was instructing, considered the interests of others before he considered his own.  But not just that, these were strangers.  And it wasn’t just some money, it was that little extra.  Because that’s what people most often need—that little extra.  That little something extra that says someone is thinking of us, that we matter.  It can often fulfill us and rejuvenate us far better than money.

The pastoral advice given in Hebrews 13 reads, “Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have…”  My father shared what he could when he could, and even when he didn’t have much, he was able to give more because of the way that he gave, with a little thought. 

When I was 12, Miles, who was in my Biology class, and I became quick best friends.  By Christmas, we were inseparable.  Miles’ father was at sea six months out of the year, and Miles’ mother was fighting her own demons.  By the time he was 14, he was driving himself to the store for groceries.  Miles was a middle-schooler left to raise himself.  We became fixtures at each other’s homes.  I liked his freedom, and he liked being among a family.  He especially liked being around my dad.  When at our house, Miles took part in the family fun, and he had to abide by the same structure that I did.  Miles craved structure, and he craved being a part of a family who took notice of him and cared about him.

Once Miles’ dad missed his birthday, and to make up for it, he said he would buy Miles a vacuum cleaner.  He thought his father was joking.  But, out to Sears we went one night and his dad bought him a beautiful new vacuum cleaner, complete with attachments.  He wasn’t joking.  Miles never got a birthday gift.  Miles tried to make the best of it; he reversed the suction flow and turned the vacuum cleaner into a mini rocket launcher.  We took turns spitting out wads of paper and those little army men with the plastic parachutes tied to them.  And we laughed.  Miles could be very brave like that.

But that was why Miles liked my dad so much; he gave him something his own dad didn’t.  During that Christmas in seventh grade, Miles was over for dinner, my dad’s version of a goulash.  And after dinner, my father disappeared for a moment and then came back into the room, his hand extending a wrapped present to Miles.  He smiled genuinely.  Miles read the tag aloud, "To: Miles/ Merry Christmas.”  He tore away the green and silver striped paper and held a pair of wool lined leather gloves, perfect for the cold that had already set in that season.  Miles’ head was bent as he only said, “Thank you.”  But I knew him well enough by then; he was thrilled. 

It wasn’t the gloves.  Miles had gloves.  Someone, my father, was thinking of him.  And that was just what he needed.

I didn’t know my dad had gotten him a gift.  But what he told me was that he had bought several little gifts and had pre-wrapped and pre-tagged them for when a visitor came over.  He just needed to quickly write his name on the tag.  Again he explained, “They love it.  Just a little something extra to make ‘em feel good.  That’s what it’s all about.” 
Over the next few days, Miles stirred conversations back to those gloves and how nice that was of my dad.  My father did good.  He shared what he had.  He considered others.  And sometimes, more often than not, that’s all it takes, a couple of bucks, a card, a pair of gloves, a little something extra that says you are valued.  You are remembered.  My father understood that in abundance. 

Not too long ago, I was driving home from Home Depot, when up ahead an older black gentleman had slipped off the curb and had fallen onto the sidewalk.  Without hesitation, I pulled to the curb and rushed to help the man over to his porch.  He caught his breath, and he said he was okay.  He said he had a few drinks and that he really didn’t feel a thing.  I asked him if there was anything else I could do for him.  He rubbed his head a little and just said, “Thanks, you did enough.”

I am still haunted by that man with the two canes whom I had abandoned just after he smacked the sidewalk.  The image of him, stunned on the ground, shoots into my mind every so often, and I’m disgusted, and so I force the memory back down deep and far away. 

But sometimes, because I remember the little extras, I get it right.