The kindness of strangers

Nice people are everywhere. Nice people being nice in profound ways. Even in the midst of all the hate, violence and racism that captures the headlines and newscasts today.  Bad people behaving badly. But despite the disturbing episodes I wake to each morning I’ve found happy endings and happy stories in my activities of daily living as well.  I haven’t really been seeking them out; they just happen. And that’s the best kind of happenings.

People out of the goodness of their heart help one another in countless ways. Using Internet sources they help find lost relatives, track down birth families helping adoptees find family members from DNA match results, or find killers through cold case investigations. Sure, some people do it as part of their jobs, but I’m talking about the people who are being kind just because they’re interested in helping those who are wanting. Those who are lacking. Those who are need of a solution to their unexpected and undeserving situation. In the information research business (in which I was a part of for the past decade) there are experienced searchers trained in genetic genealogy, private investigations, and library science who will pick up the trail on complicated cases out of the goodness of their hearts and because they like to solve puzzles.  Those that do so are known as “search angels”. “DNA Detectives” is a social media site for getting help figuring out the genetic side of DNA test results: the individuals on site are known to help those in need simply because they can.

In just the last several days I had help from a volunteer searcher (whom I have never met) who tracked down a friend of mine from my summers working on Martha’s Vineyard.  This friend had a very common first and last name and was last known to be living in Chicago (John Wilson).  I hadn’t seen or heard from in over 43 years. This searcher did it because she likes “doing good” and has the know-how to do it.  It took her all of twenty minutes to find him!  All I gave her was his last known address – from 43 years ago – and a few miscellaneous characteristics: his height (6” 8”), the university he attended (but did not graduate), interest in golf and basketball, and his father’s occupation and place of business. (It turns out I had it wrong. The place of business was correct but his position and title was not correct).

Within minutes the searcher sent me a list from ancestry,com with all my friend’s residential addresses and phone numbers – including wireless phone numbers –  for the last 30 years. I figured the last wireless phone number was a good place to start. Bingo! We texted last week and talked for over an hour last week as well. The Internet can be truly a tool for good; and not just for scams, scandals and scoundrels.

Last Sunday, while biking with a few guys, I heard a story from a new acquaintance that struck me.  This man’s wife needed a stem cell transplant, and signed up with Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston to help. Coincidentally, I’m reading a book “When Death Becomes Life” by Joshua Mezrich, MD, a personal account of a transplant surgeon’s life and the medical breakthroughs that occurred in the development of the transplant field.  Apparently there is a database of stem cell donors and potential recipients. In this case, the man’s wife was unable to find a stem cell match in all of the United States, so the search was expanded overseas. A young German woman in her 20s was in the database, and her stem cells were a match with all the markers and was accepted. Someone from Dana Farber flew to Germany to collect the stem cells and brought them back to my acquaintance’s wife in Massachusetts.  The transplant occurred.   It worked. The gift of one person’s stem cells were implanted in another person.  But the story did not end there.

A few years later the woman who received the stem cells decided she wanted to meet the German woman face-to-face who saved her life. Arrangements were made amongst the medical centers and transplant teams involved, and an appropriate time and place for a meeting was agreed on.   A translator was found.  The US woman and husband flew to Cologne, Germany to meet with the German woman and her mother.  They spoke no English.  The US couple spoke no German. The young woman arrived at the designated spot wearing a burka, as did her mother. It turns out she is of Turkish and Lebanese descent and Muslim.

My acquaintance and his wife are Jewish.

Who would expect a Muslim to donate and give life to a Jew?

This fact did not change a thing.  They all wept and hugged each other; they knew that their meeting was special, made possible only through the kindness of strangers.  They were already friends, despite their differences, on that Cologne, Germany day.

For me personal stories like these prove to me there are plenty of good people, kind people giving people. A multicultural world can be vibrant and caring, not harboring hate.

The kindness of strangers shows up in other places too.  There are crowdfunding sources like “GoFund Me” for individuals to turn to when in need of money.  GoFund Me is one of the most popular and successful platforms originally started in 2010. As of 2017, GoFund Me has raised over five billion dollars, hosting more than two billion fund-raising campaigns in nineteen countries as reported by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker (July 1, 2019) in the essay “Tell Us What You Need”.  Historically, a lot of cause-related campaigns have been hosted on GoFund Me, unexpected occurrences, soliciting funds from strangers who have the desire to help their fellow man (or woman, or child) deal with their dilemma, or lacking or calamity.  As Mr. Heller says “GoFund Me has become both a first stop and a last resort” for those reeling from the cost of medical finances, seeking opportunity and hope (and a little faith) dealing with unplanned and unexpected occurrences.  Those who give to those in need, sight unseen, are another kind of kindness that should not be overlooked.

My guess is that by being kind and by looking for ways to give little gifts to friends, family and strangers alike, the world can be a whole lot more wholesome and sane. Giving gifts of kindness need not be as dramatic as the stories I described.   Simply including acts of kindness into your daily life, rather than simply being an affluent consumer concerned with one’s own fulfillment can make a profound difference in the state of your neighborhood, community, city or town and country.

The joy of giving is something that we can all prosper from, both the giver and receiver.  Just the other day a friend of mine, a graphic designer, offered to layout and design a piece of collateral for the Climate Crisis community forum I’ve been working on all summer, providing her design expertise at no cost for our non profit organization.  We’re so lucky to have such a talented designer to help us. Giving without strings attached is an act of true generosity.  It need not cost a dime.  It’s coming from the heart.  Instead of questioning what life is giving us, perhaps we might profit more by asking what we ourselves can give.

Published by Richard Halpern

Retired (but busy) after a lengthy career in business marketing, communications and research. Worked at four start-ups and one turnaround. Now volunteer doing prospect research for a climate activity and social advocacy non profit, amongst other things.

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