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Learning To Be a Good Human. You Know, Eventually.

December 20, 2011

Me: “What did you do today?”

My mother: “Oh, I read for Books Aloud and then I sat with a cancer patient. What did you do today?”

Me: “…”

Her: “…”

Me: “I drank three lattes and wrote a blog post.”

Oh, how I wish I could tell you this was exaggerated for dramatic effect. No. Actual conversation. Only one example of many such conversations. My mother doesn’t mean to guilt me into being a better person, it just sort of happens.

This is one of the reasons I don’t want to have kids until I’m living a life I really believe in – doing work I love, making enough money to send them to the good schools, and living up to my purported values by doing a lot of that “help other people” thing.

Hi, I just acted like I’m not allowed to procreate until I’m a paragon of humanity. RAMPANT PERFECTIONISM COMPLEX FOR ONE, PLEASE.

Last weekend, I volunteered with one of those paragons of humanity and a whole bunch of kids. I was supposed to go to some amazing-sounding food thing with Nicole and Drea, but I don’t understand calendars.

Drea: “Why aren’t you coming?”

Nicole: “Amber’s being a good human. She’s feeding homeless people.”

Me: “Well, I wouldn’t have agreed to go if I thought I had anything better to do.”

Does hell reserve a special corner for people who only volunteer when they don’t have anything better to do? If so, I will be there, warming my feet over toasty coals of hubris.

So instead of eating all the food, I went to Santa Monica and handed out all the food. By standing awkwardly amongst the kids and parents of TKO as they zipped around handing out armfuls of plastic ziploc bags stuffed with sandwiches and fruit and chips. Some of the kids hauled coolers of water and sodas to pass out. The most popular kids were the ones with the plates of homemade chocolate chip cookies. They were practically still warm. I really wanted one of those cookies.

My hunger led me down a path I’m not proud of. I seriously thought about confiscating a bag of chips from one of the ziploc bags, but eventually reason prevailed. Where reason = not wanting to give any demonic minions the excuse to turn up the thermostat in my eventual resting place.*

* For the record, I don’t believe in hell. Except the one we make for ourselves, one that happens a lot more often when I’m not appreciating what I’ve got. It’s impossible not to appreciate what you’ve got when you’re handing sandwiches to people for whom a nice sandwich is a major luxury.

We walked along the waterfront, and the kids handed out more food to the people camped under trees and perched on benches. Everyone the kids and their parents interacted with looked happier about the conversation than the food.

I have enough trouble striking up conversation with random people in coffee shops or on the street as a reasonably well-dressed girl with all the trappings of first world prosperity. (What up, cute sneakers and brand new iPhone.) It must be seventy billion times harder if you’re careworn and don’t have easy access to a shower and have been wearing that threadbare sweatshirt for days or weeks. In other words, obviously homeless. People often don’t want to give them the time of day, and that’s heartbreaking.

To be honest, I’m one of those people. I rarely engage. There are a lot of reasons for that and you probably know them all, especially if you live in a relatively urban area. But that’s not really an excuse. I often don’t talk to people because I don’t want to take the time or I don’t want to deal with whatever feelings I might have – guilt, pain, annoyance, not-precisely-sure-how-to-get-out-of-this-one-and-yes-this-is-the-last-time-I-talk-to-the-obviously-crazy-dude-on-the-bus.

As we walked along Ocean Boulevard, it was heartwrenching to watch them light up over that brief connection with someone who was asking – genuinely – how their day was going or complimenting – sincerely – on their spontaneous burst of Christmas caroling as we passed.

That someone was not me. This time. Maybe some day it will be.

So you do what you can. I could be there. Present, if not fully engaged. And I do know that I’ve never been so god blessed in my life as I was last Sunday.

If we’re going to be obsessive with this whole honesty thing, I have to admit that it’s because volunteering makes me feel better. It also furthers that whole Be Good Human thing. And means I might be able to have something other than lattes and blogging to report when I talk to my mother.

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  • Reply Ali Presley December 20, 2011 at 11:43 am

    So happy for you! There’s no feeling quite like volunteering. It just feels so damned good to re-center on what’s important and be a part of the solution.

  • Reply Nora December 21, 2011 at 8:08 am

    I think it’s perfectly natural that you didn’t feel engaged because that’s how we can feel when we are doing something outside our comfort zones. I bet the more you do it, the easier you will find it to interact. I kind of believe we could all do more than we do. Good for you for getting out there!

  • Reply Mandy December 21, 2011 at 1:53 pm

    We are glad you joined TKO in our efforts to not only affect the lives of those in need but to get that feel good switch turned on in all of us again. It is innate to children and the more we ignite it, the warmer it makes us feel.
    Looking forward to seeing you at more of our fun events.

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