Once when I was in the depths of my alcoholism and homeless I woke up without my shoes. Someone had taken them. They were lined winter shoes and I’d bought them with the last of the money I had.
When I lay down to sleep, I’d set them at the foot of my blankets and they were gone when I awoke. It was November in Ontario and it was sleeting. The streets were wet and cold and I had nothing else to cover my feet with.
Somehow I made my way to a St. Vincent de Paul store. They weren’t open but when the man at the door saw me standing there in my sock feet he opened up right away. The flush of warm air made me shiver. He made me a coffee and offered me a blanket to wrap myself in. Then he fed me a sandwich and a bowl of soup and made sure that I had a pair of shoes that fit.
When he was sure that I was taken care of, he gave me five dollars. He let me sit there until I had recovered my body warmth and talked to me about things like hockey and certain jobs he knew about. He was friendly and I could tell that he cared. I left that store with a new warm jacket, dry clothes and a good sturdy pair of shoes. But I also left with a thankful heart and a feeling that I wanted to repay that kindness someday.
Well, eventually life changed. I managed to cobble together some part-time work and that led to a full-time gig in a warehouse. It wasn’t long before I had a room and had strung together a small pile of possessions again. I left the street and began to work my way upward. I found my way to other work that paid better money and I began to focus on long-term stability. But I never forgot that kindness. Now, some 20 years later I’m still working at repaying it.
See, it’s the random act of kindness that effects change in people. When that man opened the store and took care of me, he had no idea of who I might become. He had no idea of the work I would one day do or the people I might help. He also had no idea about the inner resources I carried or how I might come to approach the game of life. He only saw a man in need and he took care of him.
I had those old shoes for a long time. I wore them until the counters were slumped and the soles were thin. Even when I could afford newer and better I held onto them. I sat them on a mat by the door of the apartments I came to occupy even in the move from city to city. For me they were a symbol of how the world could be. They were a symbol of how easy it is to effect change in people.
In the work my partner and I do with our rooming house, which caters to former street people and the homeless, we try to remember that. It’s a struggle sometimes. The people we deal with have been broken by life and they often have been so direly poor that they’ve forgotten how much they deserve of life. Often, they’ve forgotten the ways of graciousness and gratitude. But we’ve learned that simple acts of kindness go a long way.
It’s important to remember that. It’s important for me to recall that I was once where they were and it’s important to acknowledge that in these turbulent economic times, most of us are a few bad decisions away from being there too. That kind of thinking brings us closer as a human family. It makes it easier to choose to be kind and open rather than distant and aloof.
Walk a mile in my shoes. That’s how the old song goes. It means something big these days. It means that empathy is the way to building bridges, to fixing lives, to changing the world. Our human condition is a fragile thing. The state of our lives and the quality of them can be tossed over by whims of fate we don’t see coming. For a lot of people in our rooming house, that’s exactly what happened to them. So it matters that we learn to look at them as people like us.
Walk a mile in my shoes. Act kindly. It doesn’t take much. It’s as easy as opening a door. It’s as easy as looking at the world. It’s as easy as genuinely wanting to help someone else. We can all change the world, one person, one random act of kindness at a time.
Richard Wagamese is Ojibway and the author of Keeper’n Me. He won the Canadian Author’s Award for Dream Wheels and his new novel, Ragged Company, arrives in August from Doubleday. He can be reached at email@example.com