Another theme of which Alexander McCall Smith writes frequently in his stories, and that I failed to mention in this previous post, concerns the moral responsibility we have toward those with whom we come in contact. Reading his books (and re-reading the many quotes I’ve copied from his books) should propel me to this right end of concern for those in my field of vision.
I planted that should like a seed, and finally, finally, the growth has begun. Contemplating these few lines from Jamie Smith’s You Are What You Love has authentically shifted something in my psyche. I'll take the tending of my garden however it comes.
This other Mr. Smith talks often in his book about having our hearts indexed to a certain end. Like what?
I'll jump to Minute Particulars here, because William Blake wrote that He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
This past Thursday, on my way to meet my friend Kristy at Tandem, I made an early-morning stop at the Berea library. With five overdue DVDs in hand to drop in the slot by the library’s front entrance, I pulled up to the curb, left the car running, and walked quickly through the rain to my destination. The parking lot was empty and not a soul was in sight, until I was startled by the presence of a man sitting near the library door. I couldn’t see him until I was practically upon him, and my instinct in this startled state was to veer far right as I walked, more quickly now than before, to get the library materials into the slot.
I spoke to him as I veered right and dropped off the DVDs. “You scared me,” I said. “I didn’t see you sitting there.“
“I’m just trying to stay dry from the rain,” he told me. “I was walking down the road and then it started to rain. I’m trying to get to Atlanta today.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s supposed to rain all day.” And then as I walked off toward my car, I turned back to the man and said, “I hope you can find a way to get to Atlanta.”
The encounter was brief, but it was an unmistakable touching of the skirt.
I hope you can get to Atlanta, I had said. And where were the legs to my hope?
In those final few steps toward my car, there was no deep contemplation or analysis of what was occurring. Plain and simple, I felt a strong awareness that this was an opportunity. There was no guilt and no shoulds for once, only a realization that here was my chance to practice.
I want to be one who cares about the poor and one who gives generously. I want both of these attributes to characterize me and to become second-nature virtues. How? It’s by practicing, and thank God, I didn’t miss my chance.
So I pulled a $20 bill from my wallet, and walked quickly back through the rain to the man once more. I gave him the money and wished him well – not only in word this time, but in deed.
This is not the first time I’ve given to someone “homeless,” or “poor,” or holding a sign by the side of the road. But it was the first time indeed that not one iota of my giving stemmed from guilt or the should side of the coin.
This giving felt different, in all the right ways. This giving was born out of my awareness that I wasn’t just walking in the rain to drop off some DVDs. I was walking squarely into the face of an opportunity to practice indexing my heart to a certain end.
On top of that, I found myself able to think about the money differently in this situation. My mode d’emploi with money is to try to save money, to not spend it, to be aware of what things cost, and to be absolutely sure that the purchase in question merits me parting me with my money.
But surprisingly, that worry simply wasn’t there when I gave to this man at the library. I knew that the money I was giving was God’s money. How much money I have, or how much money TJ can earn, are strikingly irrelevant to the money supply in question. God’s supply of money is limitless. To give $20 to this man might as well not even have counted as taking it from my money, considering how free I felt to part with it. It’s all God’s money, and I just got to be the lucky one, for one minute, to shift it around a little bit.
The man took the money and expressed gratitude. This second encounter was more brief than the first, but no less weighty. I very well might have been the one expressing gratitude.
Thank you for walking in the rain and for seeking shelter at the library. Thank you for expressing a need. Thank you for letting me practice these virtues of presence, compassion, and generosity. Thank you for metaphorically touching my skirt and getting my attention, but also for being Jesus at the same time.