Before we begin, let’s get one thing out of the way: I'm privileged. I'm white, I'm male, and I'm heterosexual. I'm too old not to understand that by now. I’m privileged even though I grew up with no money, where a family vacation meant going down the street to Grandma’s house. I'm privileged even though I grew up in a poor, all-black neighborhood on the border of East Cleveland until I was 13. I’m privileged even though I never had my biological father around as a kid. I'm privileged because my country made my road to success a lot smoother than it was for my non-white, non-male friends. Sure, I've come a long way because of unyielding hard work and determination, but it's also due to these undeniable privileges.
So with that said, what does it mean to help someone? When I walk past a person who’s asking for money, a few questions run through my mind: Should I help another human being who’s in need? If I do, am I helping out of altruism or self-guilt? Is altruism even real? Maybe it's about clearing your conscience? But my skepticism about whether or not they actually need help is a constant.
I carried a large piece of furniture for someone. We gave a homeless person money. We even gave one person a lift to the airport that night. The whole thing just made realize how we’re usually too caught up in our own little worlds, always in a rush, never pausing to observe and take in the life around us. People need help everywhere, but how do we genuinely do anything about that? That overwhelming thought paralyzes me even further. We listened to so many people tell us about how unhappy they are, about how they can't get ahead, about how they don't feel in control of their lives. When I was younger, I remember thinking, “I don’t want to grow up and be a nobody.”
But that’s utter bullshit, because we’re all on a journey. We’re all the heroes of our own lives. Many have their dreams deflated and derailed because of external circumstances, like my mother’s unexpected pregnancy, or one of my best friends' substance abuse. Or maybe someone important to them, such as a family member or a teacher they once had, told them that they’d never amount to anything. It makes me think of the Ian Maclaren quote, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle..”
This step also reminded me about what Google did for the homeless community a few years ago. In February 2008, Google made an announcement that had the potential to help hundreds of homeless people in San Francisco get back on their feet. Every homeless person in the city would be offered a life-long phone number and voicemail, should they choose to accept it. Google partnered with the city of San Francisco to provide the service to homeless individuals and to shelters, so they could distribute the numbers to their clients. It worked so well (there were thousands of signups), they did it twice.
The project worked by allowing a homeless person to call in to listen to his or her voice messages from any phone. Having their own phone number enabled these individuals to reconnect with their loved ones, make doctor’s appointments, and fill out a job applications (which typically ask for a call-back number), all at no cost to them. The users were able to leave personal greetings, and the phone numbers were theirs forever. That way, there’s no humiliation attached, nothing that hints at their homelessness; it works like any other voicemail inbox, perhaps improving their chances of finding work and improving their morale.
I kept thinking about a saying an old boss used to say to me all the time: "Never put your hands in your pockets, it's a sign of laziness." This whole day made me see my apathy more and more clearly. I know that I can do more. I know I can be better. I know I can try harder. But I never do.
I was talking to my friend Alicia about 12 Kinds of Kindness, and this step about helping people. She’s a social justice lawyer, and I was interested to hear what this all meant to someone in her line of work. I spent eight hours documenting responses, but she spends 10 hours every single day helping people! She had some very interesting things to say. I’d like to share them with you here:
I came home later that evening and listened to a slew of messages we had continued to rack up from the signs we posted. I couldn't believe it. Real people were asking us for help — for jobs, for bail money, for advice, for a ride to the airport, or just simply to chat.
Some of what I heard was heartbreaking, and I that made me feel kind of horrible about the signs. I didn't want to lead people on. I didn't want to pretend to be some savior. We called everyone back and tried to help as much as we could. I got one guy who needed help in touch with a carpenter I knew. We met a woman who had recently lost her job and bought her dinner in Queens. And yes, we gave that one guy a ride to the airport.
Below are a few examples of the messages we received, and I hope that listening to them can, at the very least, remind you that you're not alone — everyone needs a little help sometimes.
We'd love for you to participate in this 12-step journey with us. Step one is all about starting more conversations with people outside your social circles and finding out what people need help with. So go out and talk to people. Listen to people. Offer to help. Comment below or tag #12kindsofkindness on social media and let us know your stories. We'd love to hear them!
Feel free to use the artwork / quotes above to share your story on social, you can download them all on the 12 Kinds of Kindness Tumblr.