When I was a child, my age still in the single digits, my mom and I used to walk to the grocery store a few blocks down from our row home in Pennsylvania. When my parents moved there it was a clean, safe area, but as the years progressed the circumstances in that part of the city did the opposite, devolving into something unclean and unsafe – the kind of place you wouldn’t want to be walking around alone after dark or even during the twilight hours.
On one of our trips to the grocery store, I noticed a homeless person huddled on the sidewalk next to the entrance. I told my mom that it made me sad to see him sitting there like that – starving, disheveled, reduced to sitting pretzel-style on the ground begging for the loose change of those more fortunate. So we decided to buy him an apple. I carried it proudly through the store with me as we shopped, knowing that with that apple we would make that man’s day a little brighter, make him a little less hungry and a little more reassured in humanity’s goodness. That was what I thought to myself as I picked out the perfect apple, though not quite in those words, because I was probably about seven.
In the checkout line I could barely contain myself. The cashier was the only thing standing between me and my good deed and I was just itching to make this person’s day. My young mind never conceived the possibility of what would happen next. My mom and I went outside – her carrying our bags and me carrying my apple – and the spot on the sidewalk that had just minutes ago been occupied by the homeless man was now empty. I went home with an apple I didn’t want and good intentions that had gone unused.
A few weeks ago I was in Union Station in Washington D.C. I was hurriedly grabbing dinner before running off to some event in the city and as I hustled up the escalator and through the glass doors I noticed someone, dirty and alone, dressed in ragged, unlaundered clothing, laying on the ground next to a wall. They appeared to be asleep, perhaps trying to dull hunger pangs or enjoy a few unconscious hours of peace. In my mind was a flashback to that time at the grocery store all those years ago, buying the apple, and the man mysteriously disappearing before I got my chance to make his day. Now was my chance.
I proceeded into Union Station and quickly bought a cup of soup and some bread to deliver to the person lying in the metro station. For a brief moment I feared the same ending – that the person would be gone and I would be left with undesired soup and unfulfilled intentions. But I assured myself that would not be the case. The person was lying in a corner, a tattered jacket pulled over them as a makeshift blanket. Where could they possibly need to go in the next five minutes?
I still don’t know the answer to that question but when I got back out to where I saw the sad individual lying on the ground, to my utter disbelief they had disappeared. I looked behind me and all around and up and down the escalators. A minute ago so contently stationed on the floor and now gone, nowhere to be seen. I walked around Union Station, determined. I would find them. How far could they have gotten? But I could not find this person anywhere. They had mysteriously vanished, just like a mirage strategically placed to test my patience, just like the man outside the grocery store. Could it be that I’m just that bad at good deeds?
I ended up giving the soup and bread to another homeless person crouched on the ground outside the building. He looked up at me and smiled as I explained that I had seen him sitting there and wanted to offer him something to eat, and by his reaction it was clear that I had made his evening considerably happier. His face looked like that of a man who had hit the jackpot. But I was dejected. My deed did not go as planned and so in my mind I had failed. Again.
My good deeds tend to go unrecognized and sometimes it is hard for me not to resent that, not to wonder why I couldn’t just succeed in what seems to be a simple task of performing a random act of kindness. This isn’t supposed to be difficult, I would think to myself. We want our good deeds to be noticed, appreciated, publicized. We want to be received well and we want it to be evident that we had a significant effect on the person we went out of our way for. We want to be accepted with open arms and remembered.
But perhaps there is a reason my good deeds went unrecognized, unseen, occasionally even unfulfilled or completely derailed. And maybe that reason is to keep me humble, to remind me that it was never about me, but about the other. Sometimes, at the end of the day, our plans don’t go the way we intended and so it goes down in our book as a failed attempted, a wasted effort.
But it’s not about me being the hero, being the beloved protagonist who executes the cinematic moment. It’s not about me feeling good about myself because I came and I saw and I helped. It is about the other – entirely about the other, and until we can fully grasp that and check our pride at the door, we will do plenty of good deeds without an ounce of satisfaction.
Sometimes things happen to work out in a way that makes us feel just as happy and fulfilled as the individual we served, but not always. But in those less than satisfying moments when our master plan falls just short of fruition it is important for us to remember that it was about them and not about us, and that although we may not have witnessed the final result or understood the way it played out, we did good for someone, somehow, and that is what matters most.