Learning Universal Kindness from My Friends

A few weeks ago, two friends of mine were talking about how on the way home from a restaurant, they will often stop to give their doggie bag to someone begging for money. They even allow their young children to be the ones to hand the food to the person in need.

The conversation has bothered me since.

About a year ago, my son asked me why I never stop to give anyone anything. “They need it,” he said then. “His sign said anything helps!”

I told my friends how terrible that made me feel. I also told them what I said to my son.

I grew up in Washington, D.C., and in eighth grade, our school participated in a program to learn about the city. We were each assigned a topic, and though I do not recall them all, mine was housing. It was an eye-opening experience to learn about low-income housing and to explore parts of the city I had never seen. As we walked through D.C., one of the lessons of the city administrators and teachers was never to give money to someone begging for it. It wasn’t safe.

We also did community service. By the time I was done with high school, I had served food in soup kitchens, participated in numerous drives, performed scenes from “Annie Get Your Gun” in a retirement home, and volunteered Wednesday nights with Special Olympics. Engaging us in community service was part of the school’s mission.

But I also took a self-defense elective in eighth grade. While none of the cool moves stayed with me, something the teacher said stuck, probably because it was a repetition of what I’d already heard in the City Program. “You should never give money to someone begging.” He said that we were not trained to identify someone on narcotics. We had no way of knowing whether this person was decent or planning to rob or hurt us. He said we had no idea what the person would do with the money.

Which is why my friends give their doggie bags instead. Or drop off full Easter baskets for the kids who stay at a neighboring shelter. Or keep a collection of toiletries for their next run.

Still, the thought of letting my kids get close to someone begging scares me. And when I admitted that to my friends, at least one seemed to momentarily reassess her acts of generosity.

And that’s what keeps nagging at me.

I admire both women because they are more generous than I am. I respect them because it is their nature to trust and to give without having to sign up, join, bring along friends or receive recognition. Sometimes their acts are large, sometimes very small like handing a hungry man their doggie bag. What stands out is that it is a constant in their lives.

My friend has said that she is driven by the idea that one should be universally kind.

I want to keep my children safe. But I also want them to learn the importance of giving to those in need and that lesson of universal kindness that she has so successfully passed along to her daughter. For now, while they are young, we sometimes talk about global issues related to poverty, they make loans on online giving sites, and they participate in philanthropic projects at school. And my way to give is through more formal, behind-the-scenes, organized routes.

The problem is, I do not think you can be universally kind if you are also afraid. And I can still hear my son’s “You never give anything to anybody!” It is not true, but it is his perception.

I am going to South Africa next week, where another friend works with orphans and vulnerable children. I am looking forward to seeing her at work. I am eager to meet the kids she talks about. I know I will see housing and neighborhoods in much worse shape than anything I saw in eighth grade in Washington, D.C. My son wants to go too. But as someone said to me yesterday, I need to know that I can be strong in the midst of all I witness before I pass it along to him.

I wish I were more like my friends.

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