Thursday, December 3, 2009

A helping hand...

Walking an elderly person across the street. Picking up a classmate's dropped books. Walking a neighbor's dog when she's on vacation. These are simple kindnesses repeated daily the world over.

I suppose you could argue that kindness is a "nature vs. nurture" thing. Kind begets kind but then how do you explain a person who has been through hell and is still willing to stick out his or her neck for someone else?

In this argument, the New York Times has given the "nature" side a leg up. The Times reported on some studies produced recently which conclude people are "born to help." By studying children young enough to not yet be socialized to how you're "supposed to act," the biologists found babies are innately sociable and willing to help. Children will pick up dropped things and point to things adults pretend to have lost without the stimulation of a reward.

NBC San Diego posted a story illustrating that some adults have not lost that willingness to help a stranger. Virginia Saenz received a desperate voicemail after another woman dialed Saenz's number by mistake. Lucy Crutchfield left the message, telling her daughter she'd send grocery money but would have to miss a mortgage payment to do it. So Saenz called Crutchfield back and told her to pay the mortgage - Saenz would buy the groceries. She took her son along with her and bought a Thanksgiving dinner and enough groceries to last the daughter's family until the end of the month, which was the daughter's next payday. Special thanks to my friend Blair, who helped me find that story. : )

Doing the right thing on a person-to-person level sometimes gets less attention than helping out in the face of larger peril. Daily kindness is no less important, but stories of those who put themselves at risk to aid someone else can loom larger. This morning I got an email my from my old roommate Michelle, a forward telling a story about a woman named Irena Sendler. Being a bit of a cynic still - I'm working on it! - I went to to check on the story. The verdict there was: TRUE.

Called "the female Oskar Schindler," Sendler passed herself off as a nurse and went in and out of the ghetto, sneaking out nearly 2500 Polish Jews, mostly children. She smuggled them out in a tool box and burlap sacks. Sendler recruited 25 others - mostly women - to help her. Before joining an organized resistance, she saved around 500 people on her own. Sendler survived brutal beatings by the Nazis and prison when she was finally caught to help reunite the children she saved with any family left after the Holocaust.

This email reminded me of a story I saw a week or two ago about a British soldier who smuggled himself INTO Auschwitz. The BBC interviewed "Ginger," Denis Avey, who spoke of his actions over 55 years ago for the first time. Avey served in the British army during World War II and was captured by the Germans. His prison camp was attached to the death camp, and he arranged with Ernst Lobethall, a prisoner, to switch places twice. Avey wanted to witness the atrocities first-hand. Now 91 and living in Derbyshire, Avey didn't know Lobethall survived until the BBC recently reunited Avey and Lobethall's sister, Susana.

(Photo courtesy of the New York Times)

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