Helping and Hurting

My neighborhood is always under construction.  After a while, the rhythm of jackhammers and the men in their hardhats become nothing more than background noise.  After a while, you stop noticing the changes all together.  Before you know it the pavement is fresh and the potholes are filled and the newest high-rise is towering overhead but you cannot remember the skyline looking any different than it does now.  You cannot remember the way it looked before the change began, the way it will never be again.

Sometimes I walk home alone late at night after seeing friends or running errands, with my headphones in and my hands tucked deep in my pockets, in a rush to keep warm.  It’s in these moments, when the city goes dark and the sidewalks grow scarce that I feel the most alive, the freest.  The cold air rushes past me and the men in corners puff at their cigarettes and the construction continues into the darkest hours.  These late night walks bring a sense of clarity and independence to fruition each time. 

Weeks back, I was speed-walking home with my head down on a street I don’t usually turn on.  I glanced up beneath a street lamp, passing a window with a sheet of brown paper taped carefully behind the glass, hiding the assembly project inside.  I almost turned away, thinking it was just another building hiding the commercial grand-opening to come, when I suddenly stopped short.  There, in the middle of the glass, someone had carefully and intentionally scrawled this message in black window marker: Are you helping?  Are you hurting?

Wow.  That one made me think.  Are you helping?  Are you hurting?  I read the words again and again, asking myself the question over and over.  Every day we make this choice, to help or to hurt, whether we do it for ourselves or someone else.  In a city the size of New York there are two dozen types of people feeling two dozen different things on every street corner.  Some are helping.  Some are hurting.  I see a little of both every day.  I do a little of both every week, every month, every year.  To myself and sometimes to someone else.

I remember the day a few years back when I fully realized how cruel the world can be to people who don’t deserve it.  I still think that maybe it was the very worst day, because nothing has hurt so bad ever since.  It’s a day I’m still not ready to write about, to really talk about, or to comprehend.  I remember the way it broke my heart, this realization that some people simply do not care what kind of mark they leave on the world.  It was another person that did it to me, that taught me just how naïve I was.  It didn’t hurt because they were who they were.  I think it hurt because I knew from there on out that I would never be the same.  Before I knew it the street signs and sidewalks looked brand new, and I couldn’t remember who I was before.  Who I would never, ever be again.

To the people out there who know this feeling, the feeling that everything has changed… To the people who have felt that monumental, pivotal moment in life—the moment when you knew you would never be the same…To the people who are trying every day to do more helping than hurting:  There is a difference between us and them.  Between us and people who hurt people.  Whether or not you are afraid to ask yourself if you are doing more good than bad in this world makes all the difference. 

Some days it is so hard to be the helper.  A lot of mornings it is simply exhausting.  It can be so much easier to ignore the amount of need there is in the world.  To look down instead of smile at a stranger, to hold doors for you and you only, to ignore the passerby struggling with a heavy suitcase.  Some days it is all you can do to face yourself in the mirror, to hit “snooze” three times instead of four, to make it to work on time.  Some days it is all you can do to buy yourself dinner, to tuck yourself into bed at night.  And this is okay.  Some days it is all you can do to solely help yourself. 

But by hurting other people, you are only hurting yourself.  By being the person who couldn’t smile back, who let the door fall flat in someone’s face, who couldn’t offer a helping hand, you are putting yourself to shame.  I think that maybe it is our responsibility to push ourselves to do slightly more each day than we think we are capable of.  In these small, quiet moments our character is tested and developed far beyond the grand gestures or public acts we are so quick to put on display.

There are endless differences between the helpers and the hurters.  The biggest difference between me and the people who have hurt me, be it through ignorance or intention, is this:  I have spent the last few years working on myself.  On getting to know myself.  On making one hundred and ten percent sure I knew how to be okay on my own.  Because people and places are not permanent; everything is always under construction, and usually the growth and change is finished before we notice any time pass at all.  The same goes for ourselves, only I know now that I am the only person in control of whether I crumble or keep building.

Our body, soul, and mind are the only pieces of life we can love and nourish without ever having to feel like we wasted our time.  In loving ourselves, in being content with spending every moment of this complex life with the heart we have been given to protect and expose…There is no way to do more harm than good.  And the truth is I am still trying every day to figure out how to be and feel smart, kind, funny, and beautiful and also appear this way to everyone around me… Sometimes it is a lot of pressure to put yourself first.  Sometimes it is a lot of pressure to be yourself at all.  I think it will take a lifetime to figure it all out, and even that might not be long enough.  But all the while I will remember the question that stopped me in my tracks when I was running at full speed: Are you helping?  Are you hurting?