Sun. May 19th, 2024

A Christmas retread from the past.

For once, the old curmudgeon will climb down off his sarcastic perch and scribble about a story I read in a local newspaper years ago.

I don’t remember the family’s name right now, but I recall the gist: A middle-class father and his two pre-teen boys were driving around Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago, handing out free sandwiches and coffee to the men and women living in cardboard boxes down there.

They got up early several days a week and made the sandwiches and brewed a large urn of coffee; the man paying for all the ingredients himself.

They did this on a regular basis year-round, and they were not part of any religious or charitable organization; the father had just seen these people living in terrible conditions and wanted to do whatever he could think of to help. This is what he thought of. He also wanted to teach his sons to appreciate how lucky they were and a lesson in person-to-person generosity. (I hope they learned it.)

I once knew a lawyer who, after getting all the required degrees, decided to spend his time providing free legal work to those who could not afford it. He made his living doing part-time jobs other than law. (I almost wrote ‘outside the law,’ but that wasn’t the case, excuse the pun.) He was not rich by measurable material standards, but he was wealthy in the immeasurable, and more important, ones, and, unlike some of his colleagues in the legal field, he could stand to look at himself in the mirror without wincing and he didn’t need any bodyguards.

A Chicago cop who got sick of looking at all the miserable homeless people on her beat retired from the force and opened a restaurant for hungry people, a place that treated those who were down on their luck with some dignity and humanity.

She reasoned that the best way to get people to act better was to treat them better, so the meals at her free restaurant were served at the table by volunteer waiters, and in every respect the place operated like a neighborhood coffee shop, except the diners didn’t have to pay a bill.

Does it work? I don’t know, but it sure beats treating people like cattle to just to get a bite to eat.

Countless musicians and entertainers I’ve known have offered their time and talents gratis for benefits for numerous causes; these were not the glitzy events you see on TV; these were the unheralded kind that happened in small bars, union halls, and the like, unknown to but a small fraction of the human race. They didn’t stay in expensive hotel suites or get their expenses paid; they did it out of the kindness of their hearts.

I’ve also personally known many of our fellow human beings who courageously kept their wits about them and persevered in the face of extreme personal tragedy and the most depressing of circumstances to ease the suffering of another, even when the situation was hopeless. They won’t get any medals for their efforts; they wouldn’t want any.

This is the idea of America that our forebears knew; they believed in the concept of ‘commonwealth’, meaning you take care of those who can’t take care of themselves, (some of our states, like Massachusetts and Kentucky, are still called ‘commonwealths’). These are the Americans some from other countries occasionally get a chance to know and like; they are not grasping politicians, greedy power-brokers, self-absorbed celebrities, sociopathic corporatists, or some of the other despicable rabble that dominate the news. Their goodly efforts are rarely covered by the media.

For whatever their minor flaws, there are legions of Americans that indulge in altruism regularly; and what this country, regardless of the vainglorious patriotic hoopla generated by the cynics and manipulators in the skyboxes, is really all about.

There are millions and millions of them out there committing acts of selflessness and compassion on a daily basis and they can’t be stopped; they are of every religion and none; they are as persistent as gum stuck to a shoe; they are an America the rest of the world barely knows, but they are the best this country has to offer because they understand and practice this timeless creed: When you make the world a better place for others, you make the world a better place for yourself.

As Bernard Baruch said, “We didn’t all come over on the same ship, but we’re all in the same boat.”

These are the people who keep that boat from sinking.

Copyright 2002 R.S. Janes


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