I had a good Thanksgiving. I did. In my house, nice and comfy, good (and lots!) of food, with two of the people I love most in the world. As I was putting away all the food at the end of the night, I was tempted to throw away the two huge turkey legs from our Thanksgiving feast because I knew they would not get eaten. I stood there, staring at this bird carcass with tons of meat on it. Sure, we would eat a lot of it, make turkey salad (one of our favorites) and maybe some sandwiches, but the legs would sit in the fridge untouched, as they do every year, until they were no longer considered safe to eat and would conveniently find their way to the garbage. I couldn't bring myself to do it. The guilt that I felt even considering throwing them away was awful. A perfectly good bird had given his life so that we could eat; it was deplorable to waste any of that. And even more dreadful a thought: there were so many people who did not have enough to eat; how could I possibly throw away perfectly good food?
The morning after Thanksgiving, I wake with a mission: I am going to take that perfectly good food and give it to someone who needs it. Someone who needs it a lot more than I do. I have two turkey legs, so I will prepare two bags of food and give them to the first two homeless people I see on my way to work. I wonder, “What else can I give them?” I want to give them a Thanksgiving feast, like I was lucky enough to have, but I can’t realistically give them mashed potatoes and stuffing and green bean casserole. Rolls! I have some leftover rolls, those will pack well. I grab the plastic bag filled with the Pillsbury Crescent Rolls and take two out. I roll each one in foil. Hmmm…what else? Banana bread! I baked a fresh one for breakfast yesterday. I cut two generous pieces and wrap them in foil. What else, what else? Oh! I bet anyone would love some fresh baked cookies! I take out the Triple Chocolate cookie dough that I had prepared yesterday and preheat the oven. As I scoop out the batter on to the cookie sheet, I imagine the receiver of my gift enjoying a freshly baked cookie. What’s not to like about a freshly baked Triple Chocolate cookie?!? Let’s see….what else do I have? I make my way over to the pantry, rummaging around through boxes and cans and an old crumpled tortilla chip bag with a few stale crumbs in it. I come across a bag of individual packets of trail mix. I grab two. On my way back to the kitchen I notice the bright orange bowl adorned with bats and skulls, still holding some Halloween candy. I grab six bite-sized Milky Ways. Three each. It crosses my mind that I might be putting in too many sweets. I mean, someone who doesn't eat as often as they should should probably veer more towards the healthy food, no? Ah, fuck it. Everyone deserves a few bite-sized candy bars now and then, right? I return to the kitchen and pop the cookies in the oven.
I finish getting ready for work. The cookies are done. As I let them cool, I lay out all the goodies on the glass-topped bistro table inherited from my cousin. One turkey leg, a crescent roll, a piece of banana bread, 3 bite sized Milky Ways, a little bag of trail mix and 3 homemade triple-chocolate cookies. Hmmm….I’m missing something. I know! Popcorn! I have two gigantic bags of popcorn that are left over from the theatre that we didn't use! I run out to my car and retrieve the enormous bags. Now I need bags to put all this stuff in. I go into the garage and grab a paper Target handle bag and one of those recycled reusable tote bags. I bring them inside and fill them with the feast.
What will the people who I give these to say? How will they act? Will they be thankful? Will I brighten their day? I start thinking about this and wonder. The last two times I drove to work, I saw a lady on the off ramp at Lake Ave holding a cardboard sign that simply said, “Even a smile helps.” I was two lanes over so she didn't see me, but both days I had wished I was in the far right lane so she could have seen me smiling at her. I hope she is there this morning. I want to give her one of these bags.
I gather my things, kiss my husband and my dogs good bye and get in my car. I wonder if I’ll see any homeless people before I get on the freeway. Probably not. I think that I want to give my bags to someone close to my home rather than in Pasadena. I’m not quite sure why. Oh, who cares? A need is a need and whoever I give these bags to will be someone that needs them.
As I exit Lake Ave, I see a man on the ramp over to the far left. It is a 4-lane road and I turn right off the exit to get to work. Not today. I make my way over to the left lane, hoping that the light will be red so I don’t piss off anyone behind me when I stop to hand over my bag. As I get close, I roll down my window and make eye contact with the shabbily-clothed man. I notice that he is missing his right hand. My mind wanders and immediately starts to run through different scenarios. Is he a veteran? Did he do a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan? Did a car bomb explode with one of his buddies in it and he just happened to be far enough away that all the physical damage he incurred was to his right hand? Was he a machinist in his old life (before he became homeless) and had an accident that rendered him unable to work? Did he owe a gambling debt to some Mafioso and was unable to pay so they cut off his hand? The scenarios are endless. I don’t know why my mind works this way, but no matter. I snap myself out of it and smile at him and grab the tote bag from my front seat. As I slow down and come to a stop, I hold the bag out the window and he approaches. He takes the bag and mutters a barely audible “Thank you,” (or at least that’s what I think he said) and immediately turns around.
That was kind of anti-climactic. I sit there stunned, not quite knowing what just happened. I’d be lying if I said I wasn't just a little mad. Well, maybe mad is not the right word. Disappointed? No. Something. I don’t know. I was expecting…..well…..more. Does that make me a horrible person? I mean, I don’t know what I thought was gonna happen. Really, did I expect ‘Age of Aquarius’ would start playing as daisies fell from the sky and everyone joined hands and hugged each other? I don’t know. Maybe. But how dare I? I am doing something that is my duty as a human and I expect thanks for it? That’s a little pompous if you ask me. Now I’m feeling horrible about myself. But, time to suppress that shit. I have work to do. There is one more person in need that I have a giant turkey leg for and goddammit, I’m gonna find him!
I make the left off the ramp. I drive a few blocks, knowing I have to turn around and I see another man standing on the opposite side of the street in the median. I bang a U-ey and luckily hit another red light as I pull up to him. I hand him the Target bag. He is so thankful! He tells me thank you and assures me that nothing will go to waste and goes on and on about how great this is and he hopes I have a wonderful day. The light stays red for a minute, so I actually get to chat with him for a brief moment before I continue on to work. He is a nice man. I give him a huge smile and go on my way.
A good feeling starts to creep in and fill the space where the icky one was.
This whole experience causes me to question: Is there any such thing as a selfless act? Not that I’m saying what I did was remotely selfless, because it was not at all; I had more than enough food to give some to someone in need and I did. There’s nothing selfless about that; I didn't give up anything I needed or sacrifice anything. But it did make me think.
Why do people do things to help other people? Is it because it makes them feel good? If so, then it would cease to be a selfless act. If I do something because it makes me feel good, even if it does help someone else, it would appear that I am doing it to please myself and not someone else, right? But by the same token, if I do something to please someone else and it very much displeases me, is that selfless? If I am doing something to please someone else and it doesn't please me, what kind of person does that make me? I do something good for someone and it makes me feel bad? That is the epitome of selfishness.
Maybe we perform these so-called “selfless acts” so other people will think we’re good. “I’ll do this good thing and then I’ll post it on facebook and everyone will see how wonderful I am!” There seems to be a bit of that going around lately. That’s our ego taking over. We need people to know that we’re good. But does that make us bad people? Not necessarily. But when the need for the approval of others becomes more important than the good deed itself, then we may have a problem.
I don’t know the answer to any of this, but I've come to this conclusion: Feeling good when you do something good for someone else is just like a bonus and not the motivating factor in doing a good deed. The proverbial icing on the cake.
Yeah, I think I like that the best. So I’m gonna keep giving turkey legs to people in need, even if it does make me feel good.