I was driving through the neighbourhood last week and noticed a school backpack left lying on a bus stop bench. Having a blended family with seven children, I am acutely aware of how kids feel when they lose something important. I felt instant compassion for the anonymous owner so I turned around, rolled my car up to the bench, got out and quickly glanced to see if anyone was in sight. Inspecting the outside of the bag, I found no identification, so I opened the zipper to see if there was a clue inside as to which school I might deliver it. That’s when I heard a booming voice coming from the shadows from a basement window about 30 feet away. “Excuse me! Why are you going through my son’s backpack?!”
I felt a chill, then overwhelming embarrassment as I peered into the direction of the voice, where I found a boy standing by an open window, apparently waiting for his bus to arrive while he chatted with his dad inside. I choked, raised my hands in surrender and tried to answer his dad, whose face I couldn’t see clearly due to his rather large forearm and menacing tattoo that distracted me. “Sorry! I was only wanting to help! I was going to take it to the school!”
I backed up to my minivan, jumped in, and drove away wondering how I could have been so stupid. As I waited for my cheeks to return to their normal colour and my heart to slow down, I considered what had just happened. Although my motives were completely altruistic, my actions obviously looked suspicious and I couldn’t blame the guy for being annoyed. But all things considered, I still felt I had done the right thing. Despite being misunderstood, it is good for me to serve others. It is healthy for me to risk suspicion trying to find opportunity to make my community a better place. Well-intended offers of help can often be rejected (my husband once shovelled snow off his neighbour’s sidewalk in Regina only to watch later as the grumpy old man shovelled it back. He obviously didn’t want any help). But our acts of service are for ourselves just as much as for the recipient. Without them, we are nothing more than products of evolution … where only the strong survive. In truth, we are much more than that.
By now many of us have contributed to support Slave Lake evacuees. The generous, caring nature of our provincial community is admirable, especially in times like these. For those families most impacted by the wildfire tragedy, the emotional calamity will continue for weeks and years. For us, as observers, it is an all-too-true fact the embers of empathy will extinguish over time. Just consider how much you have thought about Haiti this last week. Or Japan.
But as the urgency fades it is important for us to continue giving, for our own sake just as much as for others. Benevolence is a vital component to any healthy society. Culture needs self-sacrifice to function. Ironically, service and kindness are contrary to the natural laws of survival and self-gratification. We naturally want to keep to ourselves, to hoard and to reduce our vulnerability rather than give and we definitely don’t want to risk having our motives misjudged.
Sometimes our best intentions can go wrong, but that doesn’t mean our efforts were a mistake. In the absence of an immediate crisis, we must not underestimate the importance of helping fellow human beings with a smile, a push out of the snow, an open door or financial support when needed. An occasional blunder is definitely worth the community that is built by not holding back.
St. Albert Gazette | Wednesday, May 25, 2011 06:00 am | Dee-Ann Schwanke
Dee-Ann Schwanke, resident of St. Albert for 12 years, has only once rummaged through someone else’s bag.