The following story illustrates beautifully what this blog is about:
I was working at Ten Thousand Villages Nonprofit Fair Trade Store one day. A middle aged man and a boy of about seven years old came in. Smiling, I welcomed them to our store, offered assistance if they needed it, and then let them be to wander around. They perused the various craft displays for awhile, eventually making their way to a shelf of books lining the wall that was opposite from where I sat at the cash register. It wasn’t long before I found myself involved with my work, only occasionally looking up from the computer screen to see one or the other of them pulling a book down from the shelf. It was hard not to notice how very engaged they seemed to be with what they were doing. More often than not, when I looked up, I would see them hunched over a book, deeply involved in conversation.
The books at Ten Thousand Villages are all about people and our world: books about Fair Trade and what it means to people, recipe books celebrating our planet’s wonderful cultural diversity, and stories for children and adults emphasizing our interconnection with each other.
And so there I was, busy on the computer, when I glanced up to see the two of them making their way towards me. Arriving at the counter, the little boy plunked a book down in front of me. I found myself looking into beautiful big dark eyes set in a very solemn looking little face. He spoke. He told me that he was buying the book to auction off at a fundraiser that his teacher was holding to raise money for a school in Kenya. As I listened to him speak I felt my heart open and warm to this child who was barely taller than the counter upon which the book rested. I told him that I thought it was wonderful what he was doing to help children who were not as lucky as us. He didn’t smile. He just looked at me with those dark eyes and a still serious expression on his little face.We completed the transaction. As I handed him his change I thought, I want to encourage this little boy to grow in his selflessness and caring for others.
“Just a minute,” I said, looking first at the boy, and then up at the man with him. I left the counter and headed to the office just behind me in the back room. I found my purse and pulled out my wallet. I wasn’t sure how much to give him: Was ten too much? Five too little? I am low income and couldn’t really afford much. It’s not the amount that matters, I thought. It’s the giving. Five dollars is a lot to a child; the point is to show this boy that others care too, that what he does can affect others, and to encourage him to live with caring for those less fortunate. I closed my purse,walked out of the office, over to the counter, and handed him the five dollar bill.
“I want to give you this to give to your teacher towards raising money for the school,” I said. “I want to help those children in Kenya. I think that it is wonderful what you and your class and teacher are doing to help those children.”
He was very quiet for a moment, then he reached his hand out and took the money.
“Thank you.” he said. Still he didn’t smile.
“Good luck to you in getting money to build the school,” I said, as they headed towards the door as they were leaving the store. After they left it came into my awareness how one never knows what the effect will be on a person of words spoken or actions taken as well as their possible outcome. I only hoped that what I had done would encourage this young boy to go in the direction of thinking of and caring for others as he grew up. We don’t live in a vacuum; we are all interconnected. We “inter-are”.
When I sit down to eat a meal and look down at the food in front of me what do I see? I see the food, but I also see the farmers who grew the food; I see the worms that thrive in the soil and help to break it down so the plants from which our food comes can grow; I see the people working in the factory where the plate that I am eating from was made; I see the people who make the clothes that the farmers, the factory workers, and I all wear; I see the cotton plants from which some of those clothes were made; and I see the trees that produce the oxygen that all of this wonderful life on this planet needs to live.
There is a beautiful prayer that I learned at a retreat with Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. My husband and I say it daily before eating our evening meal.
This food is a gift of the earth, the sky, numerous living beings and much hard work.
May we eat with mindfulness and gratitude so as to be worthy to receive it.
May we recognize and transform our unskillful states of mind, especially our greed.
May we keep our compassion alive by eating in such a way that we reduce the suffering of living beings, preserve our planet, and reverse the process of global warming.
In this food we see clearly the entire universe supporting our existence.
At the end of this prayer I have also added a few words of my own:
May no being want from hunger.
May no being want from thirst.
When I eat my meal I share it with all other beings. I am affected by them and they in turn are affected by me. To say these words before I eat is a gentle reminder not only of our interconnection with each other and to the earth, but also of our responsibility that comes with that awareness. As I live out my life I can say and do things that nurture or hinder. I choose to nurture. I can do things like help a little boy who is only just beginning to learn about his relationship to those outside of himself, and to see that what he does can affect others.
The days passed. The boy became a memory. One day, weeks later, I again found myself behind the counter at the store. While one of our volunteers helped customers on the floor, I faced a line-up at the till. As I chatted with the woman whose purchases I was ringing up, I happened to notice the woman next in line. I felt my gut tighten. She was holding no item for purchase. My knee jerk reaction was Oh, no, please not a complaint. I’m too busy for this. It could be something else, I thought. She could ask a question about a product or maybe she is going to solicit for some company or organization. That certainly happens not infrequently. I finished the transaction with the current customer. The woman stepped up to the counter. I smiled at her. She didn’t smile back, but looked at me earnestly.
“Do you work here every day”? she asked.
“No, I’m only part-time staff,” I said, my usual friendly tone belying the knot starting to form in my gut. She started to recount an incident at the store.
“My son came in awhile ago with my dad,” she began. “He is seven years old. His teacher is trying to raise money for a school in Kenya. He bought a book from Ten Thousand Villages to auction to raise money for the school. The woman who helped him gave him five dollars to help,” she said.
“I remember him,” I said. Okay, now I was curious.
“And yes, it was me who helped him.” She definitely had my attention now. What was this about? She looked at me intensely.
“Well, I had to come in to thank you for what you did. I wasn’t sure at first about coming here, but I realized I had to not only thank you, but let you know how very much your gesture meant to him. He had had a really rough week, so I had called my dad to ask him if he could take his grandson out for a little while. One of the places that my dad wanted to come to was Ten Thousand Villages; he loves this store. Anyway, when my son got home he was so excited about what you did in donating five dollars to help his teacher and class to raise money for the Kenyan school that he had to tell everybody about it,” she continued.
“He also did something that I was absolutely astounded at. There was a garage sale happening down the street. He disappeared into his room. A little while later he came out carrying a box filled with toys. He looked at me and said: ‘I want to sell these toys at the garage sale to raise more money for the school in Kenya.’
“I looked at the toys that he had chosen. He had not picked toys he didn’t care as much about, but toys he really liked. Toys that I would never have dreamed that he would part with. He made $35.00 at that sale that day. He was totally thrilled that he could give that much money to his teacher.”
I stood there, momentarily speechless as tears filled my eyes. What a precious, wonderful, selfless thing to have done. I told the woman that I was in awe of her little boy. When I gave that child that five dollars, I was very aware of how our words and actions can affect others, but I was not prepared for what had transpired from that simple action and the words that I spoke that day when her son and father had visited the store. I still remembered how very shy and quiet and solemn that little boy had been when I gave him the money.
“Thank you so much for taking the time to come all the way here to tell me this. I am deeply touched by what you have told me. You must be so very proud of your little boy.”
That day I felt so very grateful to be alive, and to be part of something larger than myself. I felt thankful for that little boy and for his thoughtful mother who took the time to share their story with me. I believe that the universe has many ways to guide us along this path that we call our lives. We just have to be present to see them, and to be open to the little boys of this world. That young child reminded me of what it meant to be truly selfless. I am grateful that, as a human being, I have the capacity and the ability to make choices as to what kind of imprint I make as I walk through my life. Our actions, our thoughts, and our words have an effect both on ourselves and on others. To speak, to think, and to act by stepping gently and wisely coming from that place of compassion, a place that we all hold within us, both for ourselves and for others, goes in the direction of spreading harmony and peace in our world.
The store where I used to work no longer is, but I will never forget that little boy and his mother. I know that, when I sometimes need a little reminder that I am part of something larger than myself, I have no further to look than the memory of a seven year old boy.