Editor’s Note: Kevin Powell is the author of the new book “The Education of Kevin Powell: A Boy’s Journey into Manhood.” Follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell, or email him at email@example.com. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
Activist Kevin Powell says kindness shouldn't be confined to the holidays
Extending a hand or a kind word is infectious, he writes
After witnessing cruelty to a homeless veteran, Powell says empathy is key
During the holiday season, it has become commonplace for many of us to suddenly pay attention to serious issues such as homelessness, hunger, poverty and illness.
I support this energy myself, as I’ve been producing an annual holiday party and clothing drive in New York City for homeless youths every December since the September 11 attacks. What began as a desire to bring diverse people together, simply to heal, has turned into a minimovement that has also generated support for survivors of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquakes in Haiti and the Philippines through the years.
As an activist and humanitarian, my heart has long been with those the world has seemingly forgotten. Of course, you don’t have to do what I do daily to feel that way. You simply have to have empathy in your heart for fellow human beings. But let’s be clear, the holiday season is not the only time to show kindness and compassion toward others.
“Look, who are you? Who are you really?” George Bailey asks his guardian angel Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
You can be Georgia’s Kupenda Auset, a two-time cancer survivor whose bright spirit is forever dedicated to the health and wellness of others in spite of her endless battles with the disease.
You can be Maryland’s Antonio Tijerino, head of the Hispanic Heritage Foundation and one of the most selfless leaders I have met. He mentors countless young people and stands with the children of immigrants at the Texas border as he never forgets his own immigrant journey.
You can be Rhonda Bayless in Indiana, single mother, young grandmother and dynamic voice for the voiceless, who has turned the difficulties of her own life into a community garden and empowerment space for those seeking a new path.
And you can be any number of people of any age and race who’ve assisted me when I was financially destitute, battling severe depression or had no place to live. You could be one of the people who helped me search, as a man, for the father who abandoned me as a boy.
It is in the simplest and smallest acts of love and kindness that we create true compassion and empathy – that we contribute toward the healing of our planet.
This is why extreme indifference is dangerous, why one person’s miserliness hurts us all.
I think of this as I travel America, our America. I have witnessed the dissing of the homeless, including some of our military veterans. In one particularly ugly incident in the Midwest, I heard a middle-aged man berate a homeless gentleman asking for spare change at a traffic stop.
The homeless person was told he was a waste to society, a bum and the reason our communities have deteriorated. In his tirade, this angry man did not even bother to read the cardboard sign in the other man’s hands: “I did two tours of duty in Iraq. The wars hurt me. I lost everything. Can you please help an American veteran? Please?”
I think of this as I hear those who blame poor people for being poor, never bothering to understand the conditions that create and perpetuate poverty.
I think of this as debates rage about immigrants from Latin America, about refugees from Syria or how some disparage the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
And I think of this when I hear folks mock or hurt with their words women, gay and transgendered people, the elderly, youth, the disabled, people of religious faiths different from theirs and even those who’ve been the victims of violence.
Yes, I am appreciative of any holiday celebration that allows me to spend time with my mother, the only parent I’ve ever known, especially as she moves deeper into her golden years. Yet I want that love, that compassion, that spirit of togetherness, of giving, of sharing, of being thankful, to be as natural to us as breathing, every single day of our lives.
In a world where there is so much violence, destruction, pain and trauma, and so much hatred, fear, confusion and finger-pointing, we owe it to ourselves, to each other, as sisters and brothers, as family members in the human race, not to allow the holiday season to be the only reason why we show some level of caring.
And there are so many ways to do this.
It is looking that homeless person in the eyes, and acknowledging her or his presence, even if you do not have a penny to offer.
It is checking in with a friend, or classmate, or family member, or coworker whom you know has been through a difficult stretch of life, to let them know they matter, that their lives matter.
It is offering a smile to a stranger, a warm word to a child or senior citizen, especially if it is evident that child or senior seems to have been abandoned in some way, emotionally, physically or both.
It is sharing love in one of the purest ways possible, by offering your home or your religious institution or your community to a person or family fleeing a war-torn country, so desperately in need of a life where death is not permanently trailing their shadows.
And caring is having the ability to listen to the voices of those who might be different from you like, say, Native Americans, as they express what Thanksgiving or the holiday season might mean to them, given their very different history on this land.
Indeed, I’ve heard countless individuals say that we are living in ugly and difficult times. Yes, we are. But I also believe we have it in us, as human beings, to make every day a holy day, and every moment we interact with each other an endless celebration of the possibilities of our humanity.
The world demands this, we must demand this; it’s the greatest gift and the greatest “thank you” any of us could ever give.