December 30, 2017 / 12 Tevet 5778
It was late, near midnight. 27-year-old Kate McClure was driving down I-95 on her way to Philadelphia. She was tired and didn’t realize her car was out of gas until the vehicle literally started to slow. She managed to maneuver the vehicle to the side of the road, where she sat in a panic. She was totally out of gas in a bad neighborhood in the middle of the night by herself. She had no money and no way to contact anyone.
Steeling her nerve, she got out of the car and prepared to walk to the gas station to ask for help. Just then, a homeless man walked up to her. He had seen her car veer to the side of the road. It didn’t take long for her to explain the situation. “Get back in your car,” he said, “it’s not safe for you to be out here. Lock the doors. I’ll go get you some gas.”
As the man walked off, Kate anxiously returned to her car, wondering if she was making the right choice. Was this stranger really going to help her? Or was he just going to get others to attack her? Kate tried to calm her beating heart.
Though we aren’t anxiously stranded at the side of the road, as we speak our country is caught, like Kate, at the end of a long year, waiting to see what will be, and reviewing what has been. It’s the season of lists. Best movies of 2017. Sweetest proposals. Most read news-stories. Biggest losses. 2017 has been a great year. But it has also been a year filled with fear and anxiety.
This was the year we watched Nazis march on Charlottesville. The year we sat terrified, waiting to see what casualties this new Anti-Semitism would claim.
This was the year we worried about whether our country would survive the political divide, about whether our community could stay together in a polarized age.
This was the year we watched hurricane after hurricane batter American shores, the year of flooding and mud-slides, the year of new viruses and unclear prognosis.
This was the year of more mass shootings, fear of terrorism, of unending war.
This was a year filled with anxiety about the Jewish future, about our own futures.
2017 was a year filled with fear. And fear is a tricky emotion. It’s hard to be just a little bit afraid—it’s one of those emotions that tends to sneak up on you and then blow way out of proportion. Your heart starts to race and your breathing catches. And once you’re feeling that bio-physical response, it’s difficult to reason through what triggered the fear in the first place. And it’s contagious. Have you ever had that experience where you’re afraid of something—say you’re afraid of snakes—and you talk with someone whose afraid of something different—say they’re afraid of spiders. Logically you should be less afraid after talking with someone who doesn’t share your fear. But often, after a conversation, you often end up with twice as many fears as you had before!
We have a Jewish saying about this. It comes in Proverbs: כמים הפנים לפנים—כן לב-האדם לאדם—just as a face finds its reflection in water, so too the heart of a person finds its reflection in the heart of another. In other words, when you look at your reflection, you have a stronger experience of yourself. You are seeing your external body and feeling your internal reality. So too, when you share your feelings with another, your emotions are amplified.
This is something we know experientially. Joy is always more potent in the context of community. When you walk into a room where someone is grieving, you feel sad. When you go into work and everyone is stressing about a deadline, it’s hard to be relaxed even when you have finished your work.
כמים הפנים לפנים. It’s true that our feelings often mirror the feelings of those around us. But it’s equally true that we can influence the feelings of others simply by changing our own internal reality. Sometimes we just need to make the first move.
When 33-year old Ben Taylor, a well-known YouTuber, opened his Facebook account recently, he was surprised to see the following message:
“Helo Sir, wel my name is Joel from Liberia, West Africa. Pls I beg u in name of GOD, I need some assistance from u, business or financial assistance dat will help empower me pls,” Joel asked Ben if he would send some premium electronics. He promised that he would sell them on the Liberian market and then split the profits with Ben 50/50. He said that he was “looking for God’s favor through someone” and that he believed that person was Ben.
Ben was sure this was a spam message—some random guy trying to scam him out of his money. But then, he decided on a whim to write back. After some conversation back and forth, he decided to make a business proposition of his own. He told Joel that he ran a photography business. He said that if Joel could take some photos of his home in Monrovia, he would buy the best shots. Surprisingly, he soon received several blurry and unfocused shots.
Ben was intrigued. He decided to invest a little bit in this man. He sent him a $30 camera and some pointers about how to take better pictures. He told Joel to hold the camera steady and to try to take pictures when there’s good light.
Soon, Ben was receiving quite stunning photos of life in Monrovia. He put together a book of Joel’s photos titled “By D Grace of God” and then sold the book around the world. As promised Ben split the proceeds 50/50 with Joel, but wanted to donate his portion to charity. He asked Joel if there were any organizations in Liberia that he could donate to. Joel said that what children needed most in Liberia were backpacks and school supplies. If Ben would send his $500, Joel would buy the supplies and distribute them to children in need. Again, Ben swallowed his fear that the man would disappear with the money and wired it over. Soon, his inbox was filled with pictures of Joel with smiling Nigerian children clutching new schoolbags filled with supplies.
To be clear, I am not advocating that we all wire over money and begin conversations with scammers. But, when we can overcome our fear of others, when we can respond to the world with compassion and curiosity, miracles are possible.
Which brings me back to Kate McClute. After sitting in her car for what seemed like forever, the homeless man returned with a gas can and filled her car. Though he had used his last $20 dollars to buy her gas, he didn’t ask for anything in return. He just told her to drive safe.
Kate came back with her boyfriend the next day with money and supplies for the homeless man. She learned that his name was Johnny Bobbitt and that he had worked as a paramedic transport and served in the Marines before landing on the street. She continued to stop by with food and supplies for this kind man and was touched by the way he shared with her and everyone else he came across.
She decided to set up a GoFundMe page for her kind friend. She asked people if they could donate $10,000 to help Johnny find an apartment, a car, and 4-6 months of expenses. In no time, they had raised the $10,000 and Johnny asked Kate to take the page down—he didn’t need any more. But people kept writing—they wanted to donate. Kate put the page back up. As of a few days ago, the page had generated more than $400,000. Johnny just purchased a home and has been working with lawyers to set up trust funds so that he will have ongoing support. He hopes to get a job working in an Amazon warehouse and dreams of buying a ’99 Ford Ranger. As for the rest of the money, he wants to donate it to charity. He says, “This money was given to help me. Why not help other people in similar situations or people that are actively helping other people?…Everybody out there is facing some kind of struggle, so if I can touch their life, the way mine was touched, [it’d be] and amazing feeling.”
As 2017 wraps to a close, we have two choices. We can be caught up in the emotions swirling around us. We can allow our lives to be driven by fear; close ourselves off from the people around us. We can mirror what we see, or we can create a new reflection. We can be the change we wish to see in the world. A little bit of kindness goes a long way.