I was still wiping sleep from my eyes the other morning when I saw a post on a friend’s Facebook feed.
It recounted the story of a 56-year-old man in the Detroit area who has been walking a total of 21 miles a day, for the past ten years, to get to and from work. Since his car died ten years ago, his pay rate of $10.55/hour has not permitted its replacement, and with public transportation virtually non-existent between his home and his workplace, he walks the lion’s share of the distance (21 out of the 23 miles), five days per week. His commute and his shift combined claim 22 hours of his day, leaving only 2 hours each workday for him to rest. And he has a perfect attendance record at work. Through no complaint or fault of his own, his story reached a local newspaper this past Sunday.
A local college student, having read the newspaper story the day before, organized a crowdfunding campaign to raise $5,000 to help this man buy a new car. Within 24 hours, the campaign had raised over $60,000 as well as a pledge from a local car dealership to gift the man a car of his choice from their fleet. By the time it reached my bleary eyes, the story had been out for nearly two days and already had heartily engaged the tentacled reach of social media.
Reading this story, I was deeply touched by this man’s humility, by his dedication to his employer, by his work ethic, and by his resilience and determination to continue on rather than to wallow in his story. As someone who enjoys so many of life’s comforts, often without pausing to consider the ramifications of their absence, I found tremendous inspiration in this man’s simplicity and strength. His response to life’s setbacks is so different from my own, and I felt called to honor his indomitable spirit with a gesture of a small offering to his fund.
By the time my own contribution made it to the collection, the fund had reached nearly $160,000 in donations. Now, a few days later, the total is well beyond $325,000 with over 10,000 individual contributors.
There are many elements of this story that astound me, well beyond this humble man’s personal inspirational account. I am struck by my own response (and that of thousands of others) to want to do something to honor this man, even in the smallest of gestures. I am amazed that I felt so immediately and personally moved to make an offering to this fund, beyond any such feeling I have experienced at any time in the past, even in situations of calamitous loss to scores of people at the hands of natural disasters and horrific criminal master plans.
Perhaps, in those cases of great loss, my belief—that my drop in the bucket could never suffice to displace the devastation visited on all those people—kept me from feeling like my energy and effort had any great impact on aiding those who were suffering.
The small gesture I could make toward those relief efforts felt paltry and infinitesimal in face of such great need, and I felt personally incapable of staving off anyone else’s anguish in that moment. My intentions were good, but my gesture felt insignificant.
Perhaps, in this case of individual determination and fortitude, my belief—that my small contribution actually couldmake a difference to this one person whose acts of simple daily perseverance had inspired me—made my gift feel more direct and compelling. Perhaps there is something more validating in celebrating someone’s strength and in witnessing a direct benefit to the object of my gift than there is in mourning a loss so great that no thumb is meaty enough to stop the hole in the dyke of despair.
One thing I do know is that my gift was not offered because I believed that this man actually needed my help. By the time I donated to this fund, the initial goal of $5000 had been met 30 times over. And even now, when the total collected is over 50 times the original goal, it is clear that people are not donating to fulfill this man’s need.
Instead, if their hearts are moved like mine was, they are donating to fill their own need—the need to pay tribute to an everyday heroism that most of us aspire to but never quite attain.
The inspiration that a simple act of quiet, loyal determination can create in the hearts of so many is itself a compelling force. To be able to join with others in celebration, to reward an unsuspecting hero who possesses neither pretence nor expectation, is an experience of gratitude for the vicarious joy I feel knowing that this man will no longer have to walk 21 miles each day to get to work and will no longer have to sacrifice food or sleep to keep his job.
If I could make a small gift every day to someone who inspired in me a pride in the human spirit like this man has, I would feel honored and humbled to do so. Tomorrow, I shall make sure to find someone else who inspires me, and I shall be sure to honor that person with a gesture inspired by my gratitude and offered with humility and respect.