Many of you wrote to me last week about my article on Random Acts of Kindness. Most people agreed that it is the “doer” of the good deed who reaps the most benefit. One reader remarked that when we are supposed to do something and don’t, it weighs heavily on us. I started paying more attention to areas where I can help because of a terribly painful experience when I chose not to help.
It was this tragedy that woke me up to the realization that I don’t have to save the world, I just need to act when something comes across my path. Choosing to ignore helping someone because it is inconvenient will weigh heavily on us for the rest of our lives. This is what happened to me. The searing pain of living with the knowledge that I could have saved a little innocent kitten, but walked away instead, has always haunted me. But it also changed the course of my life.
About 25 years ago, I went along with my sister to visit her friend’s pottery studio in the coastal town of Half Moon Bay where I lived. On the fence was an abandoned kitten, sneezing and shivering. My sister’s friend said she was hoping someone would come along and take care of her. I secretly wondered why she wasn’t taking her in but didn’t know her well enough to suggest the possibility.
Being a life-long lover of cats, I yearned to take her. The resistance I had came from my (former) husband who was allergic to, and hated cats — always a bone of contention between us. In those days I was a total people-pleaser, afraid of rocking the boat in my already rocky marriage. Feeling horribly torn but too spineless to do what I knew was right, I walked away.
The searing guilt of not having taken the kitten tore me up inside. I prayed continually that someone else would come along to help, trying to justify to myself my “impossible” situation. I finally called my sister and asked if she knew anything about the kitten. She told me that her friend called and said that it had crawled up into a truck engine that night to get warm and suffered a gruesome death the next day.
The news hit me like a body blow. How could this happen?, I railed at the universe. Why didn’t you send someone to help? I then heard the answer loud and clear, “I did send someone, and it was you.” It was for me to do, and I walked away. And because of my cowardice she was dead.
I had always thought that my path to saving the world or doing a good deed would come with great fanfare, sort of like Joan of Arc hearing the call from God. I would then stop everything and do the good thing when the need was presented before me. I never figured it might show up when it was terribly inconvenient. Now I realize that this is often the case.
I saw that “saving the world” had to do with me simply paying attention to the needs that crossed my path each day and acting on them in the moment, no matter what kind of hassle it might present. I vowed that I would never again walk away when I saw a need that I could do something about…….easier said than done!
Shortly thereafter my new conviction was put to the test. I was driving in a bad neighborhood in Oakland, California when an itty-bitty puppy darted into traffic. Terrified and confused, it circled back and forth among the speeding cars.
It happened so fast. I questioned whether I had actually seen anything at all. Besides, I was all dressed up in my white business suit and already late for an appointment. This was not a convenient time to be rescuing a puppy and what on earth would I do with it once I did? Here it was again, the voice justifying why I should not act. But this time I saw it more clearly, and the pain of not acting was freshly seared into my memory.
I now know that doing good isn’t always convenient and usually requires some kind of a sacrifice, but this was a new concept to me then. I realized I had to act now. So what was I going to choose?
I instantly circled around the block and made myself act, praying intently that I would find him before it was too late. I could not bear it if he had the same tragic ending as the kitten. Thankfully there he was, still frantically darting around in the street. I stopped my car in mid-traffic and scooped him up. Shaking, filthy and traumatized, he clung to me for dear life, my crisp white suit disintegrating into shades of gray.
But it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered at that moment but saving this puppy. I was filled with a huge sense of elation. This time I had acted and saved a life. I was fulfilling my promise to the kitten and the details of how I was going to take care of this little scraggly guy would somehow work out.
Taking care of him and finding a home proved to be an enormous hassle. Based on his degree of trauma, I could tell he had been abused. The scraggly little guy was so attached to me that he screamed bloody murder whenever I tried to remove him from my arms. I had to sleep with him on a chair next to my bed with my hand touching him at all times, and I had to take him out every three hours to pee. (You can imagine how well this went over with my husband.) This must be like having children, I moaned, and I specifically never wanted children. After a few days he graduated to howling inconsolably only when he couldn’t see me.
Needless to say I was the one in the dog house at home. My husband was furious (clearly feeling terribly betrayed that I would bring this screaming intruder into his house), and my own golden retriever wouldn’t have anything to do with me.
Having to take care of an un-housebroken, un-socialized and traumatized puppy who had a proclivity for humping everything in sight was not my idea of fun. Somehow I thought I would receive some great reward from the universe for my sacrifice, but there were no trumpets blaring. I was stressed out, exhausted, and I felt very alone. But I knew I was doing the right thing. The puppy was alive, and that was all that really mattered. I would somehow figure it all out.
After seven of the longest days of my life, my angel veterinarian found a good home for him. A young woman had come in looking for exactly that sort of puppy. I prayed to God that he would not show his humping proclivity and bond a little with her, but unfortunately he still only had eyes for me. Thankfully she took him anyway and gave him to her dad. I learned later that he quickly became her father’s favorite pet.
I saw then that acting on my gut when it tells me to do something is no small thing. It is in fact hugely important, and the consequences of my choices may play a crucial part in the destiny of another being. Walking away may be easier, but the internal price we pay is terrible.
Since then I have helped many little angels on my path, and the blessings they have brought me far outweighed the sacrifices I might have made. I have also been the recipient of many acts of kindness that I shall never forget.
But I see it is an ongoing process. Every time I see a need, my logical mind always comes up with a justification as to why this is just not a good time…next time …it tells me. And even though I see it now, it continues to be a struggle. We often must make a split-second choice to act, or not. It is not a dress rehearsal and we don’t get another chance. I have learned the trick of springing into action immediately, ignoring my mind’s inevitable reservations. The rest takes care of itself. It might be a huge hassle (often it is). But we also feel a wonderful synchronicity unfolding, and things miraculously somehow fall into place.
I cannot ever change the life that was lost because of my cowardice, but I can do everything in my power to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
Please share your stories about when you helped, or when you didn’t, and how it impacted your life.
Erica Sofrina is a motivational speaker, teacher and author. You can find out more about Erica at www.ericasofrina.com