When Acts of Kindness are B.S.

I did something really jerky the other day in front of my 6-year-old son.

We came to a red light and saw a homeless man sitting on the median with a sign that read, “Homeless,” so no guesswork was needed as to what he was doing.

He was holding a crucifix next to the sign, and although I fail miserably most days, I like to think I learn a lot from the teachings of Jesus. So the homeless man’s intentional 〈dare I say manipulative〉 marketing definitely worked on me.

I thought this would be a really good learning moment for my son to remember we have to give whenever we can because you never know when that one act of kindness will be the light that turns someone’s life around.

I hurried and rustled around in my purse and finally found the bills I had tossed in there earlier. I had “borrowed” them from my daughter’s desk drawer. The girl is SO good at squirreling away money that it’s always easy for me to borrow it.

Very un-Jesus of me — I realize this, folks.

I grabbed the $5 bill and put down the window. I smiled and handed it to him, so excited for the reaction of gratitude that would come my way.

He was going to be so touched that someone cared!

He was going to feel seen!

Today would be the day his life would turn around, and I would be the one to say I did that!

He didn’t even look at me. He just grabbed for the money, scrunched it up and shoved it in his pocket and kept talking to someone else in the car behind mine.

My smile turned to a furrow-browed look of “Are you kidding me?” I watched him for a second longer, and finally said very loud, “Aaaaand, you’re WELCOME!”

He still didn’t look at or acknowledge me.

The light turned green, and as we drove away I kept getting more and more annoyed. I told my son how rude it was that the man didn’t even say thank you, and how I couldn’t believe he wasn’t even happy for the money.

My son joined in the poor-me pow-wow by saying, “Yeah, he’s probably just going to buy cigarettes anyway.”

I realized then my good deed had turned horribly judgmental and self-centered, and I attempted to correct the situation. I was inadvertently turning my kid into an entitled mini-me. Not cool.

I said, “You know, maybe that’s true. Maybe that’s what he’s going to buy today, but that’s where his life is today. Maybe as he sits smoking today, he’ll have hopeful thoughts about where his life can go. We can only hope tomorrow is a better day.”

As I drove home, I realized what a skewed act of kindness I had just displayed for my son. I wanted to give to the homeless man, but I wanted him to be wowed and giggly at my act. I wanted him to pretend he wasn’t a tired, hopeless man because I deserved recognition in my mind.

I had wanted to show my son by example that giving to others is good, but I attached conditions to it. I showed him giving to others is good only when it turns out the way we had hoped.

I’m sure I was giving money to that man to make myself look good in front of my son. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I would have given him money if I were alone because my act of compassion would have no witnesses. I’m not proud of that.

When I was in my early 20s I moved to Chicago by myself. One of my first nights there, I met a homeless man on the street. He had no legs and needed help. I ran up to my third-floor apartment and grabbed my last $18 and rushed back down to give it to him.

My feeling then was so pure and lovely:  The man needed help, so I had to help him.

Now with age, when I go to give, it’s filled with gross entitlement, skepticism and a need for flowery praise, and I’m grateful I saw that jerky side of myself, so I can shut her down.

Later that night I explained to my son again how it was really ridiculous that I got so mad about the homeless man not saying thank you to me. I told him we have to think good thoughts for that man and pray we helped in whatever way was good for him, not us.

I’m not sure my son gets it yet, but at least I set a good example of what not to do, and had the humility to point that out to him.

Now to stop stealing money from my daughter…

 

 

 

 

About Rebecca Rine

Rebecca Rine is a nonfiction writer living in Dayton, Ohio, transplanted from Chicago. She contributes to the Dayton Daily News as well as public radio. Her first book of essays is called "Sunbathing in a Body Cast" and is currently working on a book about surviving divorce called "Face Your Divorce Poo." Yay!

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