Stories of Kindness from Around the World

A Drop-In-The-Bucket Act

--by johnnidi, posted Jun 29, 2009

I was entitled to a free burger because I had 10 stamps on my Smart Alec's card. Awesome, I was pumped!  I liked the burgers, was on a tight budget, and had enjoyed accumulating the stamps on my card (the cashiers had been very nice about it, providing extra stamps here and there : ). I was really going to saver this burger.

It suddenly dawned on me: the thing to do with this card was give it to someone who needed it more than I did. I plotted to leave the free burger card along with a smile card under someone's sleeping body on the street or sounded like a good plan. But, as time went on and I did not find what seemed like the right opportunity, I went through a period of cashlessness and I thought maybe I will get myself a burger with this card. I deserve it.

On my way to claim my burger I had to override my inner inclinations that said giving it to someone else was what I really wanted to do with the card. I biked to Smart Alec's and as I got to the corner I passed a man sitting on the sidewalk with a cup in front of him. I walked by and locked up my bike. On the way back I made eye contact and said, "Hello."

He looked back at me and said, "Hello. Do you have any change to spare?" I went to kneel down next to him. "What do you need, brother?"


"For what? What do you need?"

"Well, I smoke....uh, I need food...."

And I jumped in there, "Great, why don't you come eat with me?"

"I don't have money...."

And I pulled out the free burger card and handed it to him: "Here's your meal ticket," I presented with a smile.

Bill (that's his name -- "my friends call me Wild Bill") and I went in, we each got a burger and sat down to eat together. The meal was somewhat awkward, somewhat enjoyable. I listened with delight and empathy to Bill's stories of getting back from Vietnam and his subsequent adventures in San Francisco in bars in hotels, in cabs, on the street.  I observed my inner reactions as Bill removed the lettuce and tomato and pickle from his burger, and as he spoke about how there were "too many niggers in this town," while prefacing the comment with "now I'm not prejudice or anything but...." (if you're wondering: we saved the lettuce and such on a napkin, but ended up throwing it out anyway; I chose not to respond to the latter comment).

After the burgers I loitered outside with Bill as he smoked a cigarette and told me little anecdotes about the cops that drove by. When it came time to part ways he asked to "borrow" a couple of dollars, but I calmly told him I couldn't do that. I told him next time I would lend him my cell phone to call his sister back East. I waved to him as I rode my bike past him down the road.

* * *

Since this incident, now a few weeks ago, I've come back to it again and again in my mind, trying to make sense of my feelings about it...memories of enjoying the moment, but combined with the bitter aftertaste of dissatisfaction, and of course the question so many of us come back to: in the end, what effect did I really have?

And then recently I heard this:

"You just do the best you relieve suffering...because you realize that the suffering being is not separate from you."

That's what makes the most sense to me so far. Those kind of acts -- these "drop-in-the-bucket" acts --are not so much for the benefit of the helpee so much as the helper. Because in terms of what Bill really needed...not only was it beyond my means to supply, but I suspect the window of opportunity had long since passed. Is this pessimistic, cynical, condescending? I'm not sure. Are drop-in-the-bucket acts not worth it then? I don't think that's the case. As the prayer of St. Francis says: "it is in giving that we receive." The true service is to be permitted to serve.

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Readers Comments

pluto178 wrote: If everyone we meet out there comes from inside us we absolutely must love them all because they are all parts of our fractured selves. Feel love for each other as I am you and you are me, when we give moments of tenderness to another it is us that feels that tenderness in our hearts. It's great to feel loved x
irishgirl wrote: This is what makes or breaks kindness i think - being able to continue being kind even when the recipient doesn't seem entirely grateful and the encounter is a bit "awkward" as you said, or strained. I think this shows that the spirit of kindness is truly alive in you.
anniejames wrote: It would not have take a minute for you to buy a burger for yourself, but its was really wonderful of you to keep it for sum1 else :) i dunno if it made a difference to wild bill. But it was an awesome act. No doubt :)
EnglishRose wrote: I loved this story, even though wild bill was a little rough around the edges, he will think of your kindness towards him when he is feeling lonely or sad or bitter and perhaps try and be a bit better himself. This has really inspired me thank you very much for sharing and remember that every drop makes ripples :d xxx
jennifee wrote: Thank you for telling this story.

You didn't need to give this man anything.

But you gave him your hamburger that you wanted for yourself.

What a thoughtful selfless gesture.

You also gave him more, you gave him yourself, you spent time with him. You listened to him, even though you didn't agree with or like what he said. After his meal, that he didn't eat quite the way you would have eaten it, you still gave him your time and listened and offered more of yourself in the offer of the cell phone. You connected with him. You were reaching out to the goodness in him and he reached back. Maybe not as you would have liked, but he did reach back.

It makes me think that this is a parallel with us and god. God gives us so many great things some we see as the wonderful things that they are and some things we complain about and say nasty things to him.

Thanks again for sharing. Made me think
cabbage wrote: Thank you for your thoughtful post---really insightful and inspiring. Thank you for seeing yourself in "wild bill" and for spending that time with him. Your reflections are really honest and i thank you for sharing your story here. Look forward to hearing more about your journey. Much love and hugs to you :-)
mahach wrote: Excellent
warmth wrote: It is really kind of you to help a person when u urself are in difficulty. Good going and keep it up. Pray for good for u always. God bless u and thanking for your stroy
kate wrote: Johnnidi - often the testimonials in this space irritate me because they are so self-congratulatory; what appeals to me about your story are your thought-provoking comments after the shared burger; i have had somewhat similar musings after giving money to people on the street, etc, but you expressed my own occasional uncertainty well -am i being "pessimistic, condescending, cynical. ? " - sometimes,i have a vague thought that i wasted my goodwill on someone who was not "deserving" - i try to shake off that impression and remind myself that giving says more and maybe teaches more about the giver than the givee - if i, like you, give someone something out of my need - my last dollar that i was planning to use for coffee or a candy bar - and i don't get a thank you, i feel cheated. Now, that tells me something about myself, that i was on the right path when i gave up my dollar, but i detoured when i expected anything, even a thank you, in return. Anyway, thanks for that thought-provoking story; i will continue to dribble my little drops into that bucket.
maumauc wrote: I loved to hear the battle that went on within you before, during and after your act of sharing not just a free burger but the most important gift of your time and interest. That is a gift that is harder to share and you did it beautifully. Ours isnt to judge since we dont know where they are on the ladder of life. You did great and I hope to hear more of your adventures in life. agape'

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