One of my favorite movie scenes is from The Untouchables, with Kevin Costner as FBI agent Eliott Ness complaining about the difficulty of putting gangster/bootlegger Al Capone behind bars without compromising his ethics. The jaded Chicago Police officer played by Sean Connery finally issues a direct challenge to the whining Ness: "What are you willing to do?"
Most of us have gotten lazy, gratefully expecting someone else to make our world safe, provide our food, and ensure we have money to pay our bills. Gradually, we abdicate our responsibility to governments that create a growing list of expensive programs to help the unemployed, homeless, hungry, and protect us from criminals and natural disasters. Taking care of others has ceased to be a job for the local community. What is left for each of us to do?
Changing the world starts with you. How much of your time to you fritter away in organizing your kitchen junk drawer instead of calling your aging parents or visiting a neighbor or friend? Would you rather check your email in line at Starbuck's or talk to the stranger next to you? Are you helping someone else in your community or blabbing about what the mayor should be doing better? Do you cuddle up with your book, blanket, and IPod and resent everyone who ever broke your heart or refused to hire you, or get out in the fresh air and move on to something more useful than self-pity?
It's easy to judge people we don't know, and there are few people any of us knows really well. Yesterday, I attended the funeral of my husband's aunt Gladys, and remembered the enjoyable visits on holidays and at their lake house, followed by a pang or two of guilt for the times I chose to do something else, trusting that there would always be another chance to learn more about her. When we know someone only in one role - parent, teacher, sibling, spouse, in-law, friend, colleague - there is much that is hidden from our view.
There was more to Aunt Gladys than I knew, and I learned some of it from the eulogy and the photos that cycled on the screen while we celebrated her life. I knew that Gladys was a physical education teacher in the Chicago Public Schools for decades, and that she influenced thousands of other people's children, though she never married or had her own. I knew that she was a confidante and benefactor for her dozen nieces and nephews and their children. I didn't know that she always looked for ways to contribute to her church and community, as well as her family. Nor did I have any concept of the mischievous girl and hopeful young woman she was long before I met her.
The people who pass through our lives are treasure troves of experiences and knowledge that could greatly enrich our relationships with them - if we make the effort to mine those resources by getting to know who they really are. What brought our boss to this place in her career? How did cancer strengthen this friend's resolve to raise money for research? Why is the stranger in the next airplane seat so sad, and when was the last time anyone cared enough to ask? What makes the student in the corner of the class cry silently when he thinks no one is watching? What kind of pain makes the bully pick on the other kids?
We are all connected. We need to care enough to know each other more deeply - the family members who are older, co-workers left behind on the weekends, or neighbors who wave to us when we are clearing snow or walking our dogs. Sharing the details of our lives with strangers waiting in line, the cashier at the grocery store, or the person who delivers our mail takes only a few seconds, but the connections make it easier to be patient and kind to each other. How much anger could be released if someone thought to care instead of snapping at the teenager acting out, or the mother struggling with a screaming toddler in a public place? How much conflict would become peaceful co-existence?
While our political leaders argue over what to do about guns, and reality show goofs create false drama out of thin air, the rest of us can step up and make the world a better place to live. What have you done to ease someone else's burden just a little? What kindness or compassion have you witnessed? Share your ideas in the comments section, and let's build something great today - a stronger connection.
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