If there were more blizzards, I think people would be a lot nicer to each other.
Like most Chicagoans, Sunday’s “Super Bowl Blizzard” – the fifth largest Chicago snowstorm on record –left me snowed in Monday. While working from home, I took a shoveling break in the morning to clear a path from my front door, and later in the afternoon embarked to dig out my car parked a block away through an alley. Simply put, it was the best walk through an alley I’ve ever had.
In front of my apartment on Sunday night, Feb. 1; there is a foot-high step up to the front door.
True, anyone would agree that the bar for alley walk quality is pretty low, but this was an enlightening 100-yard trek, as you’re about to discover. Not 20 feet into said alley, a man stood outside his vehicle, and as I approached he began talking to me somewhat quietly about why he had stopped. I had nearly walked past his car when I realized he was stuck. I stopped and offered to dig him out. As I shoveled the snow away from his tires, I felt a rush of that cheesy-to-describe yet undeniable feeling that comes with helping someone in need. In fewer than 10 minutes he was on his way, waving “thank you” as he turned onto the street.
Halfway through the alley, I watched as another stuck car freed itself from traction-less peril with the help of two women. I kept walking and was nearly through to end of the alley when I came across a cellphone planted face down in the snow. I yelled to the women behind me to see if it belonged to them, but no luck. I looked at the owner’s favorites list and messaged the first person mentioned. A call came through from a young man five minutes later; he lived down the street and came quickly to retrieve it.
I’ll admit two Good Samaritan deeds within 20 minutes felt pretty darn good. As I began clearing off my car, however, as much as I wanted to pat myself on the back, I couldn’t. I don’t mean to diminish my own kindness, but I literally walked into these opportunities en route to solving my own problems. All I sacrificed were 15 minutes of time that I most definitely had available. I barely left my apartment. There are greater degrees of g’milut chasadim (acts of loving kindness) that I could be going out of my way to do.
I looked down the street to see others working together to help cars get through. My normally quiet neighborhood was bustling with teamwork, of all things. I read stories on Facebook of similar acts of selflessness and I imagine most everyone who weathered Sunday’s storm experienced or witnessed some form of blue-collar altruism as well. Even Wednesday morning, Mollie drove the car to work for the first time since the blizzard, and despite all the room I cleared, she still couldn’t pull out into the street. Two men nearby helped push her out.
This is what storms do. When we all fall victim to the same misfortune, it tests our capacity for empathy and our willingness to help one another. Some people dig others out before themselves; others dig themselves out and put chairs in their spot to keep others out.
It’s refreshing this year to see more of the former, but either way, in a world in which mutual cooperation has become less and less essential for survival, it’s unfortunate that the only thing that physically brings strangers together in this way – or even people who live on the same street – is hardship and tragedy.
Yet ironically, there is hardship and tragedy in our own backyard happening every day, but if it’s not buried in two feet of snow, we don’t realize – or we often forget – that it’s there. Something impacts another neighborhood, another class, another religion, race or ethnicity, so we turn a blind eye.
The silver lining of a storm is that it humbles us. It reminds us of what we can control and what we can’t. A storm can’t be prejudice toward any group of people except based on the climate in which they live. And because it impacts people within proximity of each other, it reminds us that we can in fact make a difference as close by as down the street.
When I think about the tragedies in Paris last month and the tragedies we either overlook or never hear happening daily, I think about how powerless they make us feel. We want to help and feel connected, but there’s not much we can do, or there’s too many fights to fight, to the point that in many cases we just move on with our lives. One of the problems with our interconnected online and social media world is that it’s so much easier to find out about the things we can’t change, which makes it too easy to forget about the things around us that we can affect with even the smallest bit of kindness. Homelessness or hunger, for example, will never be “trending” news items, but they’re problems people in every community can help to alleviate.
My Super Bowl Blizzard mitzvot were convenient ways to spread some kindness and make life a little easier for others, but more importantly they showed me what I could be capable of with a more concerted effort. I believe that we all need reminders of our own strength and potential to do good for others, and that the opportunities to realize it do not lie far beyond the narrow alley of our existence.