The Human Touch...
Updated: Nov 5
THE HUMAN TOUCH...
I have a warm, comforting (and short) story to tell you about an experience Diana, Meg & I had just before the Christmas holidays last year. I am confident you’ll enjoy it.
It was on the morning after Christmas, that we (yes, the three of us) decided to sit down and watch Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed on Netflix.
In the days prior we’d been talking about what our lives might have been like had we not had certain people in them to teach us, guide us, direct us and love us.
For Diana, it was her zia Giordana. If ever there was a hero (or heroine I should say) in someone’s life, it was Giordana in Diana’s. They shared an exceptionally close relationship and to be honest, most of what Diana knows about life and business and being a woman she learned from her precious and loving aunt.
I never met her, my loss, but we visit her grave at the cimitero regularly and I never miss a chance to thank that incredible woman for helping make the incredible woman I have fallen so crazy in love with.
For me, the most loving and influential person in my life has been my mother. She was an exceptionally wise woman and seemed to have unlimited time and the purest intention when it came to teaching me the simplest lessons of life.
In retrospect I can see that she no doubt had premonitions or indications hers would be a short life. She died in 1976 at the age of 52.
My mother seemed intent to pack the most teaching and mentoring and guidance into me that she could, from a very young age. Her favorite admonition to me was, “Pay ‘tention Jimmy!”
She was not talking about my heeding her (though it was understood I should and must). What she was talking about was for me to pay attention to the world around me...the smallest details that most people miss.
It seemed overwhelming at the time but in the years since her passing I’ve come to realize what an incredible gift she bestowed on me. Most everything I know about life and love and being a good person I learned from her.
Diana’s and my conversation eventually came around to the Jimmy Stewart movie that was made way back in 1946...one that I’d seen many times but Diana had seen only once when she was much younger...and in Italian! She did not have the best recall of it so I brought her up to speed...
“It is about an angel who comes to earth to show George Bailey, an exceptionally compassionate but frustrated businessman, what life would be like for so many people had he not existed,” I said.
We both took away from the movie much of what we already knew...that a life without kindness and empathy in it is not a very fulfilling life at all. She loved it and promised we’d watch it again when it comes around this year.
For the next several days the strangest and most fascinating things began to happen. It was as if the lesson we’d re-learned from the movie decided to continue...perhaps to really drive the point home for us.
We decided to go into the Bologna city center on the day after Christmas. Here in Italy the Feast of Santo Stefano is celebrated. I will spare you the long story about Santo Stefano, or Saint Stephen in English, but he was a Christian who came to prominence after Christ was crucified.
He is associated with charity, empathy and compassion...traits for which he himself was murdered. It was through his martyrdom that we know of him. Italians, and Catholics the world over, are called to follow in his charitable footsteps and perform acts of kindness and empathy for those less fortunate.
As we walked from Piazza Maggiore down one of the narrow streets of the Quadrilatero in Bologna, we could see a crowd of people (a very orderly crowd) gathered outside one of the little shops. We were instantly intrigued by this gathering so we decided to go see what was going on.
There was at least 150 people gathered outside a small bookshop and what they were doing was absolutely fascinating...
The old bookstore had been in business for nearly a century and had supplied books and texts to underprivileged people and students throughout Bologna at little or no cost. Their mission was to educate and enlighten the poor with books.
Though the book shop's third generation owner did not own the shop his business was in, he had an agreement with the landlord to pay a very low rent, an amount which had not been raised in 25 years.
But when the landlord's health began to fail, he sold the building. The new owner was not as generous or benevolent. He had the intention to get a return on his investment as quickly as possible. He raised the rent to an unaffordable level and in so doing, strategically forced the bookstore to close and to relocate.
There was another empty shop just five doors down the street. It was a bit bigger but the bookstore owner was able to secure it for just a slightly higher rent than what he’d been paying. But the difficult part was going to be moving the literally thousands and thousands of old books from the old shop to the new. He simply could not afford to pay a company to come in, box them up and move his inventory.
Nor could he depend on his employees. They were all old and retired. Most of them had been teachers or educators when they were much younger and they volunteered their time for free. Such an undertaking to move an entire bookstore was beyond their capabilities.
There’s a lot to be said for the power of books and the miracle of reading, not least of which is how they inspire common people to do uncommon things. This group of 150 people that we saw gathered outside the bookstore that day was comprised mostly of underprivileged or homeless people who had benefitted in one way or another from the bookshop owner’s kindness, charity, compassion and empathy. They’d come to pay him back by doing something extraordinary.
They gathered together to form a human chain, helping to move the books by hand, two by two or three by three, sometimes four by four or more at a time, from the old shop to the new.
There was a reporter from a local newspaper who had heard of what was going on and came to get a story. He interviewed the shop owner who was nearly speechless as he watched these wonderful people give something back...
“I get quite emotional thinking about these amazing people who have come out to support the bookstore,” he told the reporter. “And what more perfect day to receive such a wonderful gift than on the Feast of Santo Stefano.”
As if that is not enough to motivate you, there is more to this wonderful story. It seems that one of the people in line helping move the books could qualify as an Italian version of a Secret Santa...
Inside hundreds of the books being handled that day, this anonymous benefactor placed a small envelope with a note and a ten euro bill. The note read...
“If you are finding this envelope today, please know that God’s love is shining on you. Enjoy what this small gift can provide or pass it along to someone in need.”
On the day after New Year’s, Diana showed me the article in the newspaper. It was accompanied by a photograph of the human chain of volunteers. There was also another article in the paper that caught her eye and she wanted to read it to me...
In another part of the city there is a small restaurant...an osteria to be more precise. Behind the kitchen there are dumpsters where the scraps of meals and leftover food are thrown at the end of the night.
With the onset of winter weather, the homeless of Bologna are faced with even more difficulties in surviving. The owner noticed that a young man and woman and their two small children would be hiding just down the alley, out of sight, waiting for the kitchen staff to dump the food into the dumpster. When the restaurant would close, the family would go through the scraps looking for anything edible.
One night, the owner brought a special tray of food out and placed it atop the other scraps. In the tray was a wonderful meal for the four of them...and a note that went along with it...
“You are human beings,” the note read. “You are worth so much more than having to find a meal in a dumpster. It pains me to think of the good fortune that God has bestowed upon me when I see your ill fortune. Please, in the coming days, come in to the restaurant when we are open. We will be expecting you, your wife and your dear children. Please come...sit at a table and get warm. I will feed you. There will be no charge.”
Today, unexpected acts of kindness like the one Diana and I witnessed on The Feast of Santo Stefano and read about in the newspaper earlier this week are not as rare as we are led to believe. They happen every day in the most unexpected places to the most deserving people. The problem is, so very rarely do they make the news or the headlines.
But these stories of people being selfless, compassionate, charitable and empathetic are a timeless reminder that offering a helping hand to a stranger in trouble, or simply doing something nice for the sake of doing something nice, should be the norm.
We have all been in a position at one time or another when we were in need of someone’s help...someone to give us a hand up. Opening our hearts and selves to those less fortunate is one of the most heartwarming and fulfilling things we can do. How fortunate we will find ourselves if we can be that one person who extends that hand to even one other human being...