A couple of weeks ago, I was running an errand with Mom. We were a few minutes away from our house when I noticed a large, human-shaped bundle lying on the sidewalk. “Mom, stop! I think that’s a person!” I said. We pulled off and I jumped out of the car.
There, on the sidewalk, was a bedraggled, 18-year old girl. She stood as we approached. She was shivering uncontrollably, soaking wet from the rain that had been pouring minutes before, and bleeding from a cut on her face.
I asked her if she was okay. Did she need the police? Did she need to go to the hospital? She was hysterical. Crying, she said she needed to go to an Urgent Care Clinic. Mom and I led her to our car and headed towards the nearest clinic. After Mom collected some of her medical history, I asked her if there was anyone we could call. She gave us the number of her foster parents.
Once at the clinic, nurses took her to a back room. Mom and I waited in the lobby until the girl’s foster mom arrived.
We later learned the girl had been a victim of sex trafficking and had run out into the rain after experiencing a flashback.
It was late evening when we finally reached home. I grabbed my running shoes and sprinted into the darkness. All I could think about was the beautiful girl whose life had been snatched from her. How could people be so cruel? Why was there so much suffering in the world? And what was I supposed to do about it?
I stayed up most of the night thinking. Surely there was something I could do to make the world a better place…
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I had any eureka moments or visions of inspiration. The world was simply a hellhole and I was a helpless 20-year old just wanting to make a difference.
Yesterday evening, I watched a TEDx talk entitled, “I Was Almost A School Shooter,” by Aaron Stark. I would recommend it only for the reality check it offers (here’s a link—just don’t watch it before bed).
Aaron shares the story of his upbringing. He was abused, neglected, ridiculed, and eventually kicked out of his home. Sitting in a friend’s shed, he sliced up his entire arm. Covered in blood, he says he knew that if he didn’t do something, he would kill himself. In despair, he reached for a phone book and called Social Services. They picked him up…and also located his mom. Aaron’s mom, who had spent her life dealing with police officers and social workers, was able to convince the authorities to send Aaron home with her. On the ride home, she turned to her 16-year old son and said, “Next time, you should do a better job and I’ll buy you the razor blades.”
As I listened to Aaron’s story, I felt my heart sink to my feet and a pit form in my stomach. I tried to grasp the horrendous, earth-shattering devastation that he described.
After that car ride, Aaron realized he had nothing to live for and nothing to lose. When you feel that way, “you can do anything,” he explained, “and that is a terrifying thought.” Aaron decided he would express his extreme anger and rage by attacking either his school or a mall food court. He made arrangements with a local gang-banger and ordered a gun set to arrive in three days.
Aaron’s voice broke as he continued. “Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in that darkness,” he said. The friend who allowed Aaron to stay in his shed was there, showing simple acts of kindness.
These weren’t big or overbearing acts of grandeur, but simple: let’s watch a movie; let’s get something to eat. “He treated me like I was a person,” says Aaron.
Those simple acts of kindness ultimately saved many lives. Aaron is now a family man with a wife and four children. As he spoke, he pointed out that the same friend who had taken him in many years ago was in the audience.
As I listened to Aaron’s talk, I realized that life is not made up of grand moments of heroism. It’s not saving thousands of lives or rescuing the millions of sex trafficking victims. It’s the simple choices you make every day. It’s whether or not you speak words of encouragement, smile at a stranger, call up an old friend, or offer a listening ear. It’s becoming aware of the immediate needs in your friend group, in your workspace, in your circle of influence—and meeting those needs.
I don’t want to go through life with my head in the clouds, trying to save the world and missing the person hurting right next to me.