Sunday, December 2, 2012

Mankind is Our Business

It was a freezing night in New York City as the holiday shoppers rushed from place to place in Times Square.  Outside of the Skeeters store, there was a homeless man sitting outside on the pavement, shoeless, his feet covered in blisters.   A young police officer named Larry DePrimo saw that man, I mean really saw him.  Not as person who might have been a petty thief or a drug addict, or a nameless emotionless homeless person who countless people probably walked by that night.  He saw him as a fellow human being who was suffering from the cold.  Officer DePrimo was on the beat with two pairs of thermal socks and shoes and still his feet were cold, he could only imagine how this man felt in the nearly freezing temperatures that night.   So he went into the Skeeter’s store to ask about purchasing shoes for this stranger who needed someone to watch out for him that night.  The manager could not give him the shoes for free but offered to use his employee discount to get the winter boots and some thermal socks.  The officer took out his wallet and paid $75 for the shoes and socks.  There were no documentary cameras following this young man around to document his act of kindness which would have gone completely unnoticed by anyone else.   But a tourist from Arizona named Jennifer Foster happened upon the scene and took a cell phone photo – a snapshot of what is good and kind in human nature. 

This photo has resonated around the internet and made plenty of rounds on Facebook.  Officer DePrimo has been on the Today Show and various other news shows in what many call a fine example of New York’s finest.   Ms. Foster works in law enforcement and comes from a long line of people who serve and protect.  She had seen her father do something similar for a person in the same circumstance and it touched her.  She sent the photo to NYPD with a note about how impressed she was with what the officer did.  The NYPD put it on their Facebook page.   The public, feeling parched for good deeds after a very contentious election season, grabbed the photo and ran with it.  I actually posted the story on my own Facebook page.   For many, it restored their faith in humanity because lately humanity has been getting a bad rap.  You see the horrible things that are happening in Syria and other places like North Korea and wonder what has happened to us as a species.   When did not caring become okay?    Maybe we’ve needed a reminder to remember how good human nature can be under the right circumstances.

Charles Dickens’s pondered the question of kindness in human nature in his 1843 novella A Christmas Carol.  Ebenezer Scrooge is a money grubbing, self-centered curmudgeon who feels nothing towards his fellow man but disdain.  Any sense of love and charity had been snuffed out years ago.   He does not see his only relative a nephew named Fred on Christmas and bristles at giving his one employee, Bob Cratchit the day off with pay which was the custom in those days.  Scrooge is on the fast track to Hell until a visit from his best friend Jacob Marley changes his life forever.   Jacob had passed on seven years to the day and comes back in ghostly form to tell him the torment he now must experience due to the way he treated people when he was living.  When Scrooge reminds him that he was “always a good man of business”, Marley responds:

"Business!  Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!"  Marley tells Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts, one from Christmas Past, one from Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Be.  The ghost of Christmas past shows a young Scrooge who was bullied but eventually found love with Belle but destroys it all when he chooses money over love.  The ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge how he is perceived by his nephew and by the Cratchit family.   His nephew’s fiancée dismisses him as an old greedy geezer who is not worth bothering about.  Bob Cratchit, even as poor as he is, thanks his stingy boss for their meager Christmas, showing more charity then Scrooge has ever shown him.   Moreover, his sick son Tiny Tim warms Scrooges heart by showing courage and kindness and eternal optimism.    Christmas Yet to Be shows Scrooge that both he and Tiny Tim have passed on – the little boy is greatly mourned while Scrooge’s corpse is barely tended to and items from his estate are stolen by his maid.   When he begs the last ghost to send him back because he will repent, Scrooge wakes up on Christmas Day, sends a prize winning goose to the Cratchits anonymously and attends Fred’s party to the astonishment of his guests.  Scrooge stays true to his promise to the ghosts and keeps Christmas in his heart, gives money to the poor and is greatly loved.

A Christmas Carol is a great story because it asks all of us to examine our hearts and learn to see things from another’s perspective.   It has never been out of print since 1843 probably because the themes are timeless – to those whom much is given – much is expected and turning your back on your fellow man in need just is not going to cut it in the afterlife – you might well end up like Marley walking around with all your sins linked together in an ungodly chain of misery. (Are you listening Donald Trump?)

One thing that really bothered me about this past election was the sense that it was more over class issues then “Hey we’re all Americans and let’s get this country moving.”  It became more about economic differences –the haves vs. the have nots.  I know that mind-set has been around since the turn of the century (both 1900 and 2000) so this is nothing new but the nastiness of this election took was really bad.  The ferocity of the opposition to a universal health plan really took me aback.  I’m not going to tell you that it’s a perfect plan (nothing is) but trying to choose between feeding your family and wondering if you can get chemotherapy does not move us further as a country.   There are ways to fix it if both sides want to work together and adopt a program that closer to the Swiss Healthcare system that offers subsidies to lower income families but still requires people to have some form of insurance.   The Swiss use a premium-support model that is similar in many ways to the various Paul Ryan proposals for Medicare, and also to the Obamacare exchanges.   Working together, conservatives and liberals can put their differences aside and create a workable healthcare plan that might actually save billions of dollars and help the most vulnerable in our society at the same time.  It’s a win/win that needs to see political pride checked at the door if we have any hope of having it work.   It’s a way to help mankind in the United States as we know it.

I’m not trying to bash the wealthy because in my line of work, I’ve had to serve the Have-Nots while soliciting money from the Haves.   I almost always find generous people on both sides of the aisle who want to help once you make a good case for what the needs of the people you are serving are.  For instance, I used to work at a charity that works with adults with developmental disabilities.   One of the programs was Community Connections where we try to match our individuals and their passion with a professional person who shares that same passion.   We had one older gentleman named Randy who loves anything that flies.   The office was less than a mile from a private airport and the Maintenance Supervisor offered to take Randy around to the different areas of the complex that normally would be off-limits to anyone off the street.  Randy got to see the air traffic tower and the controllers were more than happy to show him how things worked and how to guide a plane safely in.   He got to sit in a helicopter and he got to meet real pilots who were working on their private plane before it got ready to take off.  They were thrilled to share what they knew with Randy because this developmentally disabled man touched them with his excitement and love for the same thing they cared about.    These wealthy men probably had a ton of things to do before take-off, but stopped when they saw someone they could help or just brighten his day.   Their faces were priceless as they spoke to Randy about why they love to fly.   It didn’t cost those pilots anything but time and my guess is that they felt pretty awesome after the visit was over.  To me that is just as miraculous as giving shoes to a homeless person because the spirit moves you to do it. 

Since Officer DePrimo’s act of kindness has hit the internet, there have been so many messages from people who appreciate the fact that as a police officer did what he felt was right.  It would have been easier to ask the man to move along because he might be bothering the tourists.  For my money, he gave this kindness when he thought that no one was watching.  That is the true definition of character. 

Now there are of course the cynics who have left messages that would have you believe that this homeless man was probably a drug addict and sold the shoes for drugs or that there are safety nets and no one is truly homeless unless they want to be.  There are also those that are suspicious of law enforcement and claim that this is all made-up.  They list a litany of abuses from bad cops in the NYPD as an excuse to not be touched by the photo or see the intrinsic goodness in what was being done.   I would hate to see the world through their eyes because while they might claim to want to help, their inability to see the good in anyone either a police officer or a homeless person will keep them in this spiral of negativity.  In their eyes, the world is a terrible place, full of terrible people in which only terrible things happen.  

Yet they will still go to church or temple or whatever religion they ascribe to and claim to be a good person who just hasn’t found the right cause to support.  I like Stephen Colbert’s response to those who put down the needy because it’s easier to turn a blind eye than offer any meaningful solutions:  “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we've got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don't want to do it.”   There were thousands of people who saw that man and many homeless like him that night and just pretended not to see them because it was easier to not get involved and not acknowledge that person as one of God’s creatures.  I remember seeing a homeless man sitting at a table in McDonalds drinking a cup of coffee because that was probably all he could buy.    When he went the bathroom, I walked over to his dirty and stained book bag and put a $5 bill on it which was all the cash I had on me.   I got my kids and left, peaking around the corner in the window when the man came back and found $5 unexplained dollars on his book bag and no one around.  I don’t know what he did with it - my hope is that he got something hot and nourishing to eat.  I smiled the rest of the day.   

The Ghost of Christmas Present asks Scrooge , "Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be that in the sight of Heaven you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child!"   It’s the Christmas season, and whether you are giving to a toy drive, or offering to help an overwhelmed neighbor, or just writing a check to a cause you care about – everything counts.  It’s a time to share and feel good in a way that a new iPad just can’t give you.   It took a 25 year old police officer to show us the real truth behind the season of giving – it’s to help out the less fortunate because whatever your economic circumstance or what you are able give, mankind is everyone’s business.

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