The act of helping

I LURCHED FORWARD in the backseat of my mom’s green minivan, restrained only by my seatbelt, so she could see me in her peripheral vision while driving.

“Ugh, why do I have to do this?” I asked her.

“You need to learn the importance of helping others, not just for them, but for yourself,” she muttered through gritted teeth.

Her tone had gained more than its fair share of exasperation from my hours of groaning. Ever since she told me that cold Saturday morning in November that our family was volunteering to prepare food for the homeless at a program called Loaves & Fishes later that night, my day had consisted of complaining, pouting and half-baked excuses to try to get out of going. I spasmed in my seatbelt, sat back and crossed my arms tightly, like all kids do when they don’t get their way.

Through my 11 years of life I had always considered what I wanted first and thought about others second. It’s not like I was some budding sociopath; I was just self-centered, like many kids are. I always fought with my older brother for “control” of the television, argued over who deserved the last cookie, and when I didn’t win an argument, I would call for one of my parents to come resolve the dispute (meaning agree with me).

I pretended to empathize with people as long as it didn’t take time or effort from me. It was an act, a way of being seen as a caring person without having to do the work that goes with it. At the time, I didn’t have enough perspective to understand looking out for other people is important. Acting upon empathy is a necessary behavior of a healthy person. I didn’t know this when I was 11, but I was about to find out.

Upon arriving at Loaves & Fishes, I was surprised to see just how many volunteers were bustling around. A dozen were cleaning and arranging the many wooden picnic-style tables in the large center area into seven rows of six tables. Another dozen people were over by three large serving tables, laying out bowls and platters of homemade comfort food, fruits and vegetables. A lot of healthy food, to be expected. Being an 11-year-old, I noted the absence of desserts at the table. It didn’t help my mood.

A middle-aged blonde woman with a clipboard approached us, asked for our names, told us our jobs and sent us off. As I met the adults I would be working with, pretending to care, all I could think about was how badly I didn’t want to be there. How I didn’t want to know any of them. I was having a horrible time.

Shortly after that, we heard an announcement: the homeless were coming in. The moment I had been dreading all day had arrived. People of all ages and races began filing into the room, slowly making their way toward the serving table. I maintained my friendly face as they approached and I began scooping out food.

I quickly noticed something –

I was so busy working, I couldn’t think about pouting or what I could be doing with this valuable time. Then something important happened, something that shaped the person I’ve become.

I had taken a bathroom break, making sure to wash my hands thoroughly before returning. As I exited, I bumped into one of the homeless men. He was African-American, about 60 years old. His face appeared to be lined from worry and sadness. His hair was the type of gray-white reminiscent of a typical freezing, overcast winter day in Minnesota. He was very tall, 6-foot-5 or so, and really skinny. His black jacket vest hung off his body in a way that told me it probably fit him well many missed meals ago.

He looked down at me, recognizing me from the serving line. He smiled at me, and the relief and thankfulness his big, dark eyes projected have stayed with me five years later. He put his left hand on my shoulder and extended his right for me to shake.

“Thank you,” he said, and walked past me into the bathroom.

For the rest of the evening I didn’t think about how I could be playing video games or watching basketball in the warmth of my house. Each time someone walked past me I wondered what they had gone through, what their story was.

By the end of the night, much like those I served, I felt refreshed, refilled and much more willing to face the next day. I hadn’t just helped those people, I had discovered how doing things for others was good for my well-being. My encounter with that tall, graying man changed me forever, and definitely for the better. Now when a classmate asks me about homework, or I see someone struggling with something, I know I have to do whatever I can to help.

It’s not an act anymore.

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