Thursday, January 8, 2015
When Random Acts of Kindness Aren't Enough
Two weeks before Alice died, I had a feeling that something bad was about to happen. And no matter how much time passed, it wouldn't go away.
Something just didn't sit right with me. I'd be on the bus on my way home from work, watching the rain collect on the windows and worrying. I worried about John, I worried about my family, I worried about my friends, and - occasionally - I worried about myself.
I became anxious and jumpy. The dread was the worst. I'd cling to John a little longer in the morning when he kissed me goodbye before heading off to work. I'd text him while I was on the bus to make sure he made it safely to work on his bike. I obsessively checked in with my parents and my brother. I messaged friends who were feeling unwell or seemed down lately.
Then I had a crazy idea: maybe I could keep my loved ones safe from this unknown, terrifying feeling in the pit of my stomach by performing as many random acts of kindness as possible, thus "boosting" my karma and "protecting" those around me.
It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. But when you're feeling desperate, superstitious, and a little crazy like me, you'll try anything.
I let people to step in front of me in line at the grocery store. I actively sought out anyone who looked like they needed a seat on the bus and gave it to them. I stopped to help someone who needed directions. I donated to charity.
Don't get me wrong - I try to do all of the above as much as possible anyway. But this time - this time, there was a purpose.
And then one night, on my way back from rehearsing the Britten War Requiem in Angel, I squinted into the darkness and saw an elderly woman slowly making her way down the street with a cane in one hand and a full bag of groceries in another. From where I stood, I could just about make out the shape of a stooped figure in a black coat and fur-lined hat.
It'd been raining for days and the leaves piling up on the sidewalks made walking dangerously slippery (even for me). Because of this, she was walking in the middle of the road to avoid the leaves and I was worried that a car might hit her in the darkness.
I only lived a street over from where she was slowly shuffling along, but I hesitated before approaching her - what if she was insulted by my offer to help? What if she thought I was trying to scam her? I kept walking determinedly towards my street until I stopped, sighed, and ran after her.
"Excuse me," I said brightly, as I approached her side, not wanting to startle her. "May I help you carry these home?" I gestured to her groceries.
She looked at me uncertainly. "Yeah?" she asked, skeptically.
"Yes, absolutely," I said. "I don't live far." I told her the name of my street for reassurance.
"Oh, that would be wonderful," she said. She spoke in a thick, Irish accent, and my heart broke at the sight of her cold fingers, made purple by the heavy bag. "Do you know? It's taken me an hour and a half by bus just to get here from Highbury and Islington! Traffic is terrible. And it's so quiet at night here! You're the first soul I've seen all evening!"
I nodded in agreement.
We chatted for a little while as we made our way to her flat nearby. Her name was Anne and she'd lived in Islington for over 40 years, but now lived alone after her husband passed away 15 years ago.
"But I've got to get out every day," she said. "You can't stay cooped up in your house. You've got to go out and meet people. Otherwise you won't see anyone!"
She took my arm as we crossed the street and my heart melted just a little more.
But as we reached the steps leading down to her ground floor flat, I was shocked to see that she didn't have sufficient lighting next to the steps, or even the door to her flat - very dangerous. It was completely pitch black!
"I've written to the council so many times about this," she said, searching for her keys. "But they never do anything about it."
A lump formed in my throat as I told her to be careful, and to watch out for herself. I thought about trying to set up a weekly grocery trip or organizing better lighting for her, but I didn't want to let her down (in case I couldn't deliver on my promise) and time was ticking as we stood there awkwardly in the doorway.
"You're always welcome to come by for a cup of tea," she said. "You're always welcome. You're a good girl. Your hubby is a lucky man." I laughed at this.
Reluctantly, I waved goodbye and headed back in the direction of home.
I didn't take up Anne's offer in the end because, well, a few days passed and I didn't think she would remember me. But I thought of her often (I still do). And I also thought, shamefully, embarrasingly, wrongly - and I feel as though I can tell you this and you won't judge me (or I trust you not to judge me, at least, not too harshly) - that I had done a good deed. And that, wasn't this enough to ward off the darkness that was about to occur?
So I said - I said to whoever is "up there" - I said, 'You see? You see what I've done, what I've been doing? Now you've got to keep up your side of the bargain. You've got to protect the ones I love."
But there was no bargain.
There never was.
Seven days later, I woke up to a series of horrible messages on Facebook about Alice's death. A few days after that, my brother was involved in a car accident (but thankfully, not injured, though his car was written off). My mom became ill with a severe chest infection that I was terrified would turn into pneumonia.
Which was the terrible thing that my heart had been waiting for? I didn't know. But I was angry.
I was so angry.
So I asked - I asked whoever is "up there" - I asked, 'How could you punish me like this? After all the good that I've done this week when I first had That Bad Feeling? How could you?"
And then it dawned on me: this isn't how life works. It isn't even how "up there" works. Because why would what happened to Charlie Hebdo this week have happened? Why does anything bad in the world that happens, happen? It is certainly not for the shortage of "good deeds" that are done the world over.
So, with that in mind, I ask you to tread carefully into 2015 - to perform random acts of kindness for strangers because you want to be kind, not because you want to be reimbursed for your kindness. That kind of thinking - that "karma points" thing?
It's bullshit and it's wrong.