Life's Tool Box – A Guide for Parents and Educators

November 30, 2012

NYPD Officer and Homeless Man: Our Gift of Giving

Filed under: Articles and Resources — by Life's Toolbox @ 6:17 pm
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The picture has had thousands of hits since it was posted by a New York Tourist.  Lawrence DePrimo a NYPD policeman, who used his own money, spontaneously went into a Times Square shoe store to purchase boots and socks, is kneeling to help a homeless man into the new footwear on a cold winter night.  It is the perfect picture of selfless helping that makes us proud of those in the serving fields, and moves us to think about what we would do, and how generous we would be.

I heard both Officer DePrimo and Ms. Foster, the Arizona tourist, interviewed today.  While nothing should take away from their contribution to a wonderful example of humanity at it’s best, their stories point to two critical factors that may help us understand what it takes to live up to this standard of generosity and caring.

Officer DePrimo remembers the night well.  It was so cold that even with two pairs of socks, his toes were cold.  When he saw a barefoot, elderly homeless man, DePrimo’s empathic skills went into high gear – he could literally put himself in another’s shoes – or lack thereof.  This ability to experience another’s pain has been demonstrated to be, in part, in-born and present not only in humans, but other species.  I can’t help thinking, however, that DePrimo must have been doing lots of reps on his empathy muscles, to condition them for this level of tender caring.

The empathic connection doesn’t end with DePrimo.  Jennifer Foster, the “tourist” from Arizona who snapped the picture, mentioned in today’s interview that her father was a police officer in Arizona for decades.  What she did not say, but was revealed in other news coverage, is that she is the Communications Director for the Pinal County Sheriff’s office, in Arizona.  Her empathic connection to men in blue, or whatever color uniform they wear in desert climes, is clear.  She was drawn to the scene by her understanding of all that men and women in law enforcement do.

Another critical element in this story of beneficence is the  recipient.  Officer DePrimo, when he initially approached the elderly gentleman asking if he needed help, was taken by his sweetness, and his expression of thanks to men in blue.  Foster, describing the scene when DePrimo’s footwear purchases were offered and the officer began to “dress” the homeless gentleman, says the impoverished man’s face lit up, and was radiant.

Like so many, my heart was warmed by this story.  After weeks of storms, conflicts, and other bad news, how lovely to see the best we can be on TV.  But some questions nag at me.  Would this act of giving have happened if all the stars of empathy had not aligned?   We are less likely to relate to others when their experience is not like ours.  Would even the most caring of us walk past a barefoot man, when our toes are toasty and warm?  Are we less willing and likely to feel the pain of the hungry, when our bellies are full?  Research suggests that had Ms. Foster not been particularly attached to the stories of policemen, she might not have noticed the scene, captured it for posterity, nor thought of sharing it.

All these questions remind me how hard we have to work to make the connections between ourselves and others.  They make it so clear that we need to expand our worlds, the minds and hearts of our children and students, to develop the willingness and skill to imagine the lives, and the pain, of which we are blessedly ignorant.

My other nagging worry comes from the described graciousness of the recipient of this wonderful gift.  Studies of human behavior document that we are nicer to those who are nice.   That it is easier to care about people who show gratitude is one of many compelling reasons for all of us to build our own, and future generations’ attitudes of gratitude.  But I would hate to think that grumpy homeless men are any less deserving of warm footwear.  Or that with out a proper thanks from our recipients, we will stop giving.  It is, in a way, ironic, that the best way to think about giving is to detach it from the recipient and his or her reaction.  Giving must be, on some level, about the giver.  Generosity needs to be about who we are as givers, and how we wish to be transformed by the act of giving.

In the comments on the NYPD Facebook page where this emblematic picture of generosity is posted, you can find intensely divergent comments.    Perspectives range from that this is an example of angels walking on earth, or that the homeless man “parking himself” in front of a shoe store is a “great stunt”.  I hope this picture helps us sharpen the focus not on what happened on a cold New York night, but on what happens in our hearts and minds, and those of our children and students.  If it prompts us to question, not the actions of others, but our own . . . if it forces us to explore whose pain we feel and whose we ignore . . . if it sends us into a store or pantry or our pocket to give more, then it will be a picture worth lots more than a thousand words.


1 Comment »

  1. […] NYPD Officer and Homeless Man: Our Gift of Giving ( […]

    Pingback by One picture worth a million words | A View From The Middle (Class) — November 30, 2012 @ 11:32 pm |Reply

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