On Good Deeds

During the holiday season, there are constant reminders of the concentrated power of good deeds. There are talk show segments, and books, and stories that illustrate how even anonymous kindness can determine how you’ll be remembered.

Scientific findings concur that preforming or even witnessing acts of kindness can make you feel better, by releasing serotonin to improve your mood and strengthening your immune system to make you healthier. And even though it’s easy to fall into the dark pit of cynicism here in NYC (as I often do), the times that you don’t are the moments that are likely to stay with you forever.

A few years ago, I was walking in my neighborhood when I came across a woman crying hysterically on the sidewalk. She seemed manic, unhinged, and people were crossing the street to avoid her. She was yelling out: “Please help me!” “Please!”

She made me nervous, and I knew if I stopped she’d try to engage me. But I did stop. Her tears were heart-wrenching. As I got closer, I could see her eyes conveyed coherence–and total and utter despair.

“Please,” she said, quieter now, ready for conversation. “My boyfriend just kicked me out. I’m trying to get home to South Carolina. Can you spare anything?”

I offered to buy her lunch at a diner two blocks away. As we sat, she calmly explained her circumstances. “I don’t know why I followed him here,” she said, tears flowing in steady ribbons down her cheeks, “I never should have come here. I have nothing here. I hate it.”

She seemed delighted when I told her she could order whatever she’d like.  She picked a BLT and Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry soda. As we waited for the food, I ran down the street to an ATM. I took out some money–either $40 or $60, I don’t remember exactly. Not that much in the scheme of things, but I’d hoped it’d put a dent in the cost of a bus ticket down to SC. When I presented the money to her, her eyes lit up. She was so grateful, I almost felt ashamed–for how much it meant to her, for the power it had.

We parted with a hug, and I wished her good luck.

I think about her sometimes. About whether she made it back. The question of whether her story was real never really crosses my mind. Even then I realized: It doesn’t really matter.

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