This I Believe

Choosing Compassion In a Culture of Fear

A couple years ago, as I was loading Sophie into the van after a morning of half-day kindergarten, two men approached me. Their car had run out of gas on 27 and they wondered if I would give them a ride to a gas station.

I believe most people are good and kind. I give the benefit of the doubt. I listen to the stories about no change for bus fare home, and I dig into my purse and hand over the quarters. Sometimes, sure, I find the same woman standing at the same corner telling the same story—and still collecting quarters—two hours later. But sometimes I watch the too-thin young man devour the burger I bought for him at the Newport Wendy’s and, without thinking too much about the particulars of his situation, I buy him two more.

The out-of-gas scenario, though, gave me pause. They seemed legit. They had approached me in full daylight in a parking lot adjacent to the school. They acknowledged my wariness. They echoed the beliefs of many: One can’t be too careful these days.

But can you?

I had a choice, and I chose to believe them, to believe in us. All of us. We say we can’t help out strangers for fear that something bad will happen. And sometimes, it does. But how often? The news stories exist because the instances are rare. People cry out, But your children! My children are much more in danger of being physically hurt in a car accident every time I put them in a vehicle than they are of some unknown thing happening to them because I chose to help a stranger. There was a lesson for my children to be learned at that moment, and I wanted them to learn the right one.

I drove the men to a gas station. The gas station had gas, but no containers. Another man overheard the situation and offered to drive to his house, just around the corner, and bring back his own container for the men to use. We waited. He came back, the men got their gas and I drove them back to their car, which was, indeed, sitting on the side of 27, empty.

Sometimes I think back on that afternoon with conviction: I did the right thing. Other times, my anxiety swells. What was I thinking? When retelling the story, there’s a similar consensus: What were you thinking?

Being human is so hard.

Thankfully this scenario hasn’t repeated itself and I don’t make it a habit to pick up hitchhikers. The last time we picked up someone Andy was with me. An older woman was walking up the side of (again) 27, in intense heat, arms heavy with groceries. Turns out she and her daughter had gotten in a fight and her daughter had kicked her out of the car. I had (and have) no anxiety about this. But why? Because she was a woman? Because my husband was with me?

Choosing to believe in the good of others doesn’t always work out in my favor. We once paid a contractor $800 for materials before he started the work. He was just getting back into the business, it was around the holidays and he had two small children. He didn’t have a cushy business account to cover the materials prior to the work. So we paid him. We never saw the materials. Or him. We took it to small claims court, won a judgement, but he never paid. His bank account was empty. The last we heard, he was in jail.

Another time I let a young woman into our house on an awfully hot August day. Her story: She was selling magazine subscriptions in order to earn money for college. When it was all said and done I had paid $40 for a subscription to Vogue. I later looked up the company she was working for and realized the whole thing was a scam. For this, I was lucky: I was able to cancel my subscription and get my money back. (And Andy gently approached me with the idea of establishing a house rule of not engaging with door-to-door solicitors, children excluded.)

So sure. Not everyone is good all the time. But if we choose to live in a culture of fear, we choose to miss out on the connections we can make with other humans outside of our circles.

The year I turned 30 I travelled to Spain and Morocco with my friends, Aimee and Shruti. While in Fez, a woman started following us—and eventually, talked to us. Nabila spoke Arabic and French, and was learning English. She was so happy to have the opportunity to try her English out. She invited us to her home for hot tea.

We had a choice. On one hand, we were three young, American women, traveling without a male companion (something that deeply troubled our riad’s owners). On the other hand, we had the opportunity to be fully immersed into this woman’s life. The next thing I remember is being linked arm in arm with Nabila, walking and listening while she chatted away, asking so many questions, while her mother (we think) followed behind. I remembered reading in my Lonely Planet Morocco book to consider yourself lucky if you’re invited into someone’s home. We felt lucky, yes, but also a bit nervous.

Turns out she lived with only her sisters. Right or wrong, upon knowing that, we felt safe.

We were served hot mint tea and cookies. She and her sisters took so many pictures of us and we of all of them. We taught her a few English phrases (although she knew so much) and she taught us Arabic (by the way, “sahabat” means “friends”). We exchanged addresses. And as we left Nabila’s apartment she and her sisters watched us walk down the darkened street, waving, waving. Lucky, indeed.

It’s when we let go of fear that the magic can happen.

A couple years ago I stopped by the gas station next to my house to pick up some beer. I was en route to visit my friend Angel. It was spring—maybe early summer—and a sudden pop-up storm hit. I saw a man run into the gas station, having ridden there on his bicycle. While we were checking out, I commented on the rain. “I’m in a van,” I said. “Happy to give you a ride.”

He accepted.

I rearranged some car seats and we loaded his bike. He lived close—just up on North Fort Thomas Ave. He said his name was Joe. He asked me about my family, and I asked him about his. He was a father of three, just like me, but older. He talked about parenting. I was struggling as a parent that day. Somehow, he knew. Or maybe, he didn’t. But he had a way of talking about enjoying the moment and discussing the clichéd “they grow up so fast” in such a way that I didn’t feel the need to punch him. His story was joyful and terribly sad (unimaginable tragedy), and his words were exactly what I needed to hear at that time.

“Stop here,” he said.

“Here?” I asked.

We weren’t by a house, or an apartment complex. Instead, we were in front of a church.

“Yes,” he said. “Here is fine.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

He insisted.

The rain was blinding. He got out, I popped open the trunk, and he pulled out his bike. I took a couple seconds to look ahead of me, and then I looked back. He was gone. It was so hard to see in the rain, yes, but everywhere I looked—no sign of him. He was just gone.

Two minutes later the rain stopped and a huge rainbow appeared.

For those of you who are religious, my God, I know. First of all, his name had deep significance to me. Then there was the blinding rain, the immensely personal parenting story, the words of wisdom I needed to hear, the church, the disappearance, the rainbow.

Honestly? I (mostly) think it was all a beautiful coincidence. Life—living—provided me with a gift in return for simply making a human connection. And yes, it can be scary—especially when two men approach you, asking for a ride. But in a world where polarization runs deep, I believe human connection is vital to noticing and acknowledging the beauty in life that is different from, outside of, our own.

It’s the age-old tale of giving in order to receive. The trouble is knowing when to do so. The trouble is being smart while also being kind. The trouble is knowing when to say yes, and when to say no. The trouble is choosing compassion in a culture of fear.

“A human being is a part of a whole, called by us the ‘universe,’ a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
—Albert Einstein

This I Believe


Last week a brown truck stopped in front of my house. The driver of the truck acknowledged our “please knock” sticker over our doorbell (16-month-old boys woken early from their nap because of a ringing doorbell does not make for a fun afternoon). He knocked softly and left. I opened the door and found a small cardboard box—the above book was inside.

For a brief moment I felt butterflies in my stomach, a feeling that becomes increasingly less common the older I get. For my name is listed in the Contents of this book—my essay is on page 95. This is a first for me.

I wrote the essay several years ago and submitted it to This I Believe. It was chosen to air on NPR, locally. In November 2006, I recorded it for 91.7 WVXU. It aired early on a weekend morning, probably before most people were awake. I thought that was the end of it.

The butterflies I felt upon seeing the book, however, quickly gave way to guilt. I hate that this essay exists. Because I hate what happened. And while I know a personal essayist’s calling is to write about tragedy as much as triumph, it is difficult to celebrate publication when an essay stems from something so tragic, from such loss.

Joe was a beautiful, kind, fiercely loving person. He left our world much too soon.

Here’s my essay:

A Lesson I Hold Dear

I believe I can be both honest and kind, even when the two seem to contradict.

Honesty often throws kindness for a loop. From telling someone there’s food in their teeth all the way to telling someone you don’t love them even though you know they love you—honest statements, although said with kind intentions, can often seem cruel.

I was sixteen years old, working at an amusement park, when I met Joe. He was older, had long, blond hair, and drove a motorcycle. The first time he called I smiled so hard my cheeks ached by the end of the conversation. He soon became my first boyfriend.

We dated the entire summer. By early fall he had said, “I love you.” I said nothing. In the battle between kindness and honesty, honesty won. 

In the months following our breakup, Joe left love notes on my bedroom windowsill. In college, he called twice. The first time we talked. The second time, he left a distraught voice mail. I returned his call and left a short message. I never heard from him again.

Several years later his sister called with news: Joe had committed suicide, months ago. Shortly before his death, his sister said, he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Joe had written a few lines about me in his suicide note, but only now had she gathered the strength to call.

I thought about the first time Joe called, how my cheeks ached. The ache had returned—but this time, it was something much deeper. Not wanting to cry at work, I ran to my car and sobbed, both the finality of what he had done—and the fact that he had thought of me, even briefly, before he did it—sinking in. Once home, I reread his love letters to me. It was then I wanted so desperately to take back my silence, to tell him I loved him—not in a romantic sense, but in a you-deserve-to-live-a-long-life sense.

A few days later I went to a party on what would have been Joe’s twenty-seventh birthday to celebrate his life. I met his family. I looked at old photos. I was intrigued to hear about the man he had become; we could have been great friends.

I hated myself for choosing honesty over kindness, for not writing more, for not calling more, for not doing more. I wasn’t so bold as to think I could have fixed him. Rather, I was sad that I had to be unkind and tell him I didn’t love him.

Several days later, worried I would never find peace, I reread what Joe wrote to me in his note: “How people should be … wonderful and I’m glad I had the time with her—still I have a wonderful feeling inside.”

It was then I realized that Joe thought my honesty was kind. His words to me were his way of telling me so, his way of being honest—and kind—to me.

A year later, on what would have been Joe’s twenty-eight birthday, my husband and I put flowers by his grave. I thanked him for a lesson I’ll always hold hear: I can be honest and still be kind.

Just as I believe in being both honest and kind, I believe in writing honestly, even when it’s hard. Still, I wish what happened hadn’t happened. I wish my topic had been something else.

But it did happen. And it’s now a part of me. It’s a part of my life. And I have a difficult time leaving life unwritten.

Late October you will be able to purchase this book at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Amazon or your favorite local bookstore. Writers were chosen by This I Believe; we were not paid. All proceeds go directly to the not-for-profit organization, This I Believe, Inc., an organization I feel strongly about. Check it out. Thinking—really thinking—about what you believe in is a good exercise, no matter if the belief stems from triumph or tragedy, gain or loss. For those elements weave in and out of all our lives. I just hope future publications reveal more triumph over tragedy, reveal less loss.

“Writing, I think, is not apart from living. Writing is a kind of double living. The writer experiences everything twice. Once in reality and once in that mirror which waits always before or behind.” —Catherine Drinker Bowen