Have you ever seen a toddler run over to a complete stranger and hug them? It’s quite common actually because a child’s heart is open — it feels the beauty or the pain in others and is too young to sensor these feelings, so, without warning, may feel compelled to embrace a stranger. Children are wonderful this way. My daughter Elsa, is still like this at 7, a rarity.
We learn as we grow to keep these feelings in check. We are reminded about dangers, privacy and decorum. We hold back, look away, forget. This is especially true in America where we pride ourselves on being self-sufficient, of standing on our own, of not needing any help. Our pride is such that if we do need help we feel ashamed and if we don’t we resent those who do. Often this resentment comes from the fact that we want to be helped too but can’t admit it, not direct help really but just compassion, someone opening their heart and giving us a hug.
Most Americans could use a hug, several hugs a day in fact. Our lives are too stressful. We have so much pressure to achieve, to get ahead, to collect stuff and then get new stuff. It never ends until perhaps we snap or just give up and fade. The reality is that our lives are too much for us. Living is not meant to be this way. We all need help but it is just that we don’t get it any more. We used to raise children in communities with lots of extended families and friends to share the burden. We think about the past romantically and long for a “simpler time.” We say how when we were kids the world was safer but I disagree. There were plenty of dangers then, it was just that when we let our kids out to play, we had a whole neighborhood looking after them. Now it is just us, just you. No wonder we are always tired.
We go through our lives overwhelmed, under appreciated, doing far too much alone and wishing, just wishing for relief. But no one reaches out, we take care of our own, we don’t extend. Then a crisis happens and everyone is amazed at how “the community came together” and for a brief time our hearts are open, only to close again when the crisis subsides.
We learn to do it all ourselves and feel like we fail if we can’t. It is this pressure that caused me to leave America in the first place and to give me pause upon returning. You see, not all cultures close their hearts once they grow up. Some still stay innocent and open. When I traveled as a child to Haiti I experienced the Haitians’ innocence and openness but contact with America changes them and they become focused on money. Still, in my 8 years of living in the Dominican Republic I can think of many instances where I was surprised by the open hearts of those I came in contact with.
Here in the States, these open hearts are harder to find. Yet all is not lost, we can learn to open our hearts, to have compassion. Here are three examples where opening one’s heart made all the difference.
When we lived in North Florida, we lived in an apartment community. After about 8 months there, the young men that had shared the apartment above us moved out and lady moved in with her teenage daughter. I wanted to say hi and welcome them to the neighborhood but they were hard to catch in and out, always rushing. Then one day I talked to the lady and found out she was divorced. I could tell she came from wealth and this place was a step down. She was polite but I could see her bitterness. After that I would always smile but she never said a word. She was closed off in anger.
Valentine’s Day came and we made valentines for schoolmates. My daughter Elsa decided she wanted to make a valentine for our neighbor. I thought it was odd because she barely knew her but I did not hold her back. Her valentine said how she thought the lady was “so pretty”. Elsa slipped it under her door.
That valentine must have made an impact because a couple of weeks later, the lady came to our door and gave my kids a big bag of stuffed animals. They were thrilled. The card was never mentioned. We thanked her and after that, the lady always made eye contact, smiled and said hi. The bitterness was gone.
Before we moved to Miami we stayed with my mother for a few months. The kids had to change schools which was a bit disruptive but unavoidable. At the new school my son discovered there was a bully on his bus who was targeting him. “Give me 5 dollars or I will beat you up.” he told my son. Marcos is quite a big kid but he is very shy so he doesn’t know the advantage of his size.
When he came home from school he told us what had happened. We decided to come up with an original approach. With the help of my mom, Marcos drew a fake $5 bill. They put in an envelope and included a note which said “Sorry but I don’t have any money. Could I be your friend instead?” The next day Marcos went off to school with the envelope and we were eager to hear what had happened upon return. Marcos told us that on the ride to school he gave the boy the envelope and at first he was angry and said “Hey! This isn’t real money!” but then he saw the note and got quiet. On the way home from school the boy approached him and was friendly. After that there were no problems or demands for money.
This last example is probably the most dramatic. During this past summer I faced many challenges but even before all that drama happened, I was dealing with a lot. My mother, who I often depended on for support, left for Maine in May. Meanwhile I had been sick since April and I found out over the summer that my apartment had a serious mold problem which had caused my illness. A huge upheaval later and the apartment owner agreed to settle if I moved out. While I was sick, my business slowly died to the point that it was almost beyond revival. Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by a woman who offered me a job designing her magazine. It seemed heaven sent, just what I needed, but little did I know she really was just the salt on the wound.
I was vulnerable and long story short, this woman tricked me into signing some documents for her company, promising that it was the only way I could get paid, and then a few months later there was a debt which she reneged on. Turns out I’m was the guarantor. Still owed money for work I had done, when I addressed the issue with her she fired me and left me hanging. I didn’t know what to do. I was angry at myself for being naive enough to sign the documents in the first place plus I was scared how I would make ends meet without getting paid. Now I had someone else’s debt tacked on. Enter Mark, a rare breed: a collection guy with an open heart.
I decided I was not going to make excuses, to lie, to try to get out of it illegally or to even ignore it. I moved past the anger that this was unfair and instead opened my heart and dealt with it. I explained my situation and hoped for some solution but was willing to pay the price, if necessary, to get past all this. I didn’t get caught up in “why me?” or “this is so unfair”. Instead I just faced it and prayed that there would be a painless solution. There was.
Turns out there was another signer on the document. A business manager who tried to befriend me against the woman who “wronged us both”. I didn’t really know the man. He claimed he didn’t sign the document and filed a police report to that effect. That left just me holding the bag. So in a last ditch effort I reached out to the woman and begged her to pay something, anything to end this debt. I entitled the email “compassion”. Well the woman never paid anything and probably never will but she did provide proof that her business manager had really signed the document and that got him back on the debt. He then admitted he had lied and made a payment.
It was a busy day as they always are. I was rushing to get dinner for the kids and the phone rang. It was Mark, the collection guy. He told me what happened and said that even though there was still a balance, he was not going to come after me for it. He saw that I was a good person and had gotten taken advantage of. He said it was his gift to me and to have a nice night.
I have learned to trust my instincts and open my heart blindly. It is always worth it no matter the outcome. We don’t need to wait for a crisis to help each other. We are all hurting and can use a little compassion.