The Great Dangers Are Within Us

Below is a post I published yesterday on my other blog, chidochokuverenga. I don’t usually cross-post, but I felt that the message might be something that you would find interesting.

“Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers. We should fear ourselves. Prejudices are the real robbers; vices the real murderers. The great dangers are within us. Why worry about what threatens our heads or our purses? Let us think instead of what threatens our souls.” – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

It was a cold January morning in Dallas and the Greyhound station was packed with people getting back to reality after the festive season. I had taken the midnight bus from Houston and I was now waiting in line for my next bus. I hadn’t managed to get any sleep, but I was very alert, clutching my bags closely for fear that someone would try and steal them. It was only my second Greyhound trip and I viewed everyone in the station as someone trying to find a way to take advantage of me.

Greyhound, in typical Greyhound fashion, had sold more tickets than they had seats, so when it was announced over the PA system from which gate our bus would be loading, we all rushed to get in line, hoping to get a seat on the first bus. Otherwise, we would have to get on the bus that left a couple of hours later. I had already been in transit for 6 hours and did not want to lengthen the journey anymore.

I was probably 20th in line, and only when I had assured myself that I would have a seat on that first bus did I take notice of the man standing in front of me. He was dressed shabbily. Like most people in the greyhound station, he looked down on his luck. He was wearing a scruffy beige coat over a dark woolen sweater and his jeans were frayed. You could no longer tell what color his sneakers had initially been, but it looked as if the front of them was ready to give. His sandy hair looked like it hadn’t seen a comb in a while and his unshaven face gave him a harried look. He was the kind of guy who would make me clutch my bag tighter if I met him on a lonely street.

He must have felt me staring at him because he glanced at me with a slight smile, but I hurriedly turned away to look out the window, unwilling to engage in conversation. A few minutes later, he asked me to watch his bag while he went to the bathroom. I watched him walk away feeling slightly panicked by the dilemma he had placed me in, a dilemma that seems ridiculous now, but very serious at the time.

The great battle that was going on in my head was whether I would move his bag forward if the line started to move. It was a heavy, black cargo bag and it looked quite heavy. It also looked very dirty. So I stood there staring at this bag, lifting my head from time to time to see if the man was coming back, trying to decide what I would do. I didn’t want to touch the bag, but I knew that the Christian thing to do would be to move the bag. But is it still Christian if your heart isn’t in it? Anyway, the bag was filthy. I didn’t want to touch it.

The man must have gone to smoke a cigarette because ten minutes later, he still wasn’t back and there seemed to be movement at the front of the line. Slowly the line began to move forward, a small ripple that eventually found its way to me. The guy in front of me only made a step forward and I decided it wasn’t enough space to compel me to move forward. But then we moved forward some more, and all of a sudden there were 4 or 5 steps between me and the next guy. I had to move. I glanced down at the cargo bag, then looked straight forward and took a step, but my conscience wouldn’t let me go any further. I grabbed the straps of the bag and pulled it forward.

I was watching the man when he came back. I saw the slight panicked look when his bag wasn’t where he’d left it. His eyes quickly scoured the floor and he saw his bag had moved a few feet. He lifted his eyes from his bag and they locked with mine. The look on his face went from relief to disbelief until it looked like something akin to gratitude. He sidled up to me and said thank you with the most genuine smile on his face.

I just gave a slight nod of the head, but inside I was in turmoil. His thanks had been so earnest but my actions hadn’t. It was my mother’s voice and 6 years of guilt training at a convent high school that had moved that bag, not any genuine kindness. Is it still a good act if it wasn’t out of the goodness of my heart?

I know this doesn’t appear to be that life changing a moment, but it haunted me for the rest of my trip and by the time I got home, I’d come to a very important realization. You see, I’d always thought of myself as a good person. I’d always believed that when it came time to pick between doing what’s right and doing what’s easy, I would always pick right without hesitation. Yet here was an example of me having to put myself on trial to decide to do the right thing on such a small matter. Being a good person is not an inherent quality. It doesn’t just happen automatically. It’s a choice you make every day, not just at the big moments but at small moments too, like when deciding whether to really take care of a stranger’s bag or not.

I doubt the man remembers our encounter, yet I’ll probably always carry it with me. The look of disbelief on that man’s face made me think of a quote from Les Misérables: “Ignominy thirst for respect.” If you want to see people facing ignominy, all you need to do is visit a Greyhound station. It’s crazy that such a tiny act of kindness could elicit disbelief, but I guess the man is not used to people doing nice things for him. I had pegged him as trouble the second I saw him, hadn’t I? Doesn’t it say something about us as a society? We look down on people at the moments that they most need our respect. It was the man’s outer appearance that created this quandary. If It had been a college-age, well-dressed woman like me, I wouldn’t have had a single thought about it. But I allowed my prejudices to create a moral quandary where there really shouldn’t have been one.

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One thought on “The Great Dangers Are Within Us

  1. I think you’ll find that those small acts of kindness we take for granted are actually rare in a lot of places. As you wrote, a Greyhound station is a particularly good place to experience a *true* disparity of means, expectations, and trust.

    Moving the bag is indeed like other small kindnesses in that you still have to work at it. And this kindness often catches many off guard, causing that disbelief.

    The important thing is that you keep it up and don’t give up on the fight to do what your heart tells you is the right thing.

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