A Matter of Degrees


The high temperature for the day had been below zero when my twenty-four year old daughter wrote the above Facebook post.  She was in Chicago on a New Years vacation layover before returning to her college town in Illinois to finish her last semester of a graduate degree that she is about to leave incomplete.  The idea that my daughter is in an MFA program – much less that she may abandon it because it isn’t the right fit – is something that never fails to amaze me. Given the circumstances of her young life, I would never have thought it possible.  But, one never knows what life has in store.

Megan is a grad student who also works fulltime as an intern, receiving as payment a tuition waiver and a small stipend to cover her rent and bills.  She doesn’t earn much, but she is frugal. On her way home from visiting Seattle for the holidays, she had enough money for a stay in a hostel in Chicago for a few days to visit museums and art galleries. She and a friend were returning from the  natural history museum  when Megan saw an elderly woman and a small boy in the doorway of a Panera trying to warm up in the heat that escaped as customers entered and exited.

Megan is a city kid and panhandlers are nothing new to her. Like any of us, she generally pays them no mind, and had probably passed several on her outing that day. She is generous to those she loves, but she will stab  you in the back of the hand with a fork if you try to take food off her plate because she remembers not having enough to eat. She also remembers the worries that a small child absorbs through the skin of their poverty-stricken parents, and seeing the small boy, the same age she was when our situation was so dire, made her stop.

“I don’t need a hand out,” the old woman said. She offered Megan  her wedding ring in exchange for a phone card and a taxi ride to the shelter where they had a bed. She was having trouble breathing, as the cold was aggravating whatever respiratory complaint she suffered from. She was moving very slowly – certainly not fast enough to keep her and the boy warm as they made their way to a shelter many blocks away.

“There was just something about her, Mom” Megan would later say to me.  “I knew I needed to help her.”  And so my daughter walked across the street to the store and bought a phone card, stopped at the Dairy Queen for  warm food and hired a taxi with instructions to take the woman and the child to the shelter.  She refused the woman’s offer of her ring as payment, instead requesting that someday, in some way, she pay the favor forward.

And then Megan returned to her hostel with her rather astounded friend and posted the above, very understated, Facebook post.

She may have saved the life of that woman and child that night.

I am a terribly proud Mama and have already posted about this on my Facebook.  But I wanted a wider audience to see this story and be reminded of how simple it is to make a difference for someone by choosing generosity over suspicion.

Cynics will say that the woman and her family made their choices, that she should get a job, maybe even that she was lying and the kid was a prop and that my daughter was duped.  All of that  is possible. But the fact is  this:  it was below zero and no one, no matter their situation, should be out in that.  My daughter was on vacation from her masters degree program – something she knew was so far away from this woman’s situation as to make it seem like they live in different worlds. As an educated white girl, Megan enjoys privilege and a bright future though technically her income places her below federal poverty level. She has never forgotten that twenty years ago, when I was close to her age now, I fed her and her brother from the food bank and didn’t know how to pay for heat. Though I had a job and we had a roof over our head, I didn’t know how we would make it through each day. Had my parents not lent a hand, we would have been on the streets. Not once, but twice.

It is easy to sit in judgement of others, to overlay our beliefs about how the world works  onto their reality.We hold tightly to what we think  is ours, because we worked for it we believe we deserve it more than someone else.  As if they have not worked. Or suffered. As if they had the same set of choices as us, or as the person next to them. Instead, the reality is we are separated from one another only by a matter of degrees.  As the saying goes; there, but for  the grace of god, go I. 

We are a nation  built on corporate greed disguised as equal opportunity, a fact that has become more and more clear as pensions, social security, food and unemployment assistance are reduced daily despite the increase in the paychecks of the top 1%. The idea that those who work hard get ahead has become a myth for youth who do not believe they will own homes or work for  a loyal employer like generations before. The world is a harsher, more isolated place than it once was. And yet, while we know this, we still argue about the validity of programs that will make sure that all Americans will have equal access to health care because we are afraid someone will take what see as ours.

What would happen if we  realized that we are fortunate to have had the opportunities we have had  and willingly lent a hand to lift up someone else who has not had the same successes? What if  we allowed ourselves, just for a moment,  to truly experience a less fortunate person’s pain, despair, shame without judgement? What if we  stopped seeing our way of life as a right  and instead understood our days as filled with privilege?  It can be as simple as rejoicing that someone who couldn’t previously afford a doctor can go now instead of complaining that you have to pay a few dollars more.  

It seemed like every week  during the holidays there was a story in the news of wait staff receiving extraordinary tips, Christmas shopping layaways paid for by strangers, hotel bills for families mysteriously being taken care of.  They were miraculous stories of generosity that I don’t want to see end. Lets continue this trend….lets ease the load on another person, make their day brighter, show them they are not alone in their struggles, not so we can be seen as good people, but because it is the right thing to do.

I challenge you all to use Megan as an inspiration this year, to step outside of your comfort zone and set aside your judgements to give someone less fortunate a reason to hope.  The person in front of you could be your child, your parent or your friend given another set of circumstances.  It doesn’t take much. I’d even love for you to share your stories here.

If a twenty-something with no money can “afford” compassion, so can you.

And to my darling Megan….if you were not already my heroine, you would be now.

2 thoughts on “A Matter of Degrees

  1. It truly is easy to fall into cynicism, your daughter gives a good clear reminder that kindness and compassion need not be sacrificed in our daily lives. Being kind and compassionate quite frankky isn’t really that hard.

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