Story 1: Starfish
“Random acts of kindness, however small it may be, can transform the world.”
― Amit Ray, Walking the Path of Compassion
The bright sunlight woke Russell earlier than he wanted to rise, and he squinted into the light as he shifted onto his other shoulder. His right arm was sore from lying on the hard, cold pavement all night, but he had no place to stay and no energy to move. His mouth was parched and his stomach was empty, but there was no immediate solution to either of those problems. His physical and mental health were in sharp decline, but he had no one to turn to, no way of picking himself back up again.
He felt something hard hit him in the side, right below his protruding ribcage, and squinted up at the sun to see an immaculately dressed businessman staring down at him. "You're blocking the whole street! The homeless population is unsightly to this city. They're an eyesore! Can't you move somewhere else?" he snapped.
Russell pushed himself into a sitting position and mumbled an apology.
"Look at me when you're talking to me! No wonder you can't find a job. You have no sense of basic respect. People like you belong on the street," the businessman spat. He shook his head and then continued walking without even a backwards glance
Russell sank back down, swiping his matted, gray hair out of his face. His head lolled backwards onto the pavement, and he closed his eyes for another nap. Next time, he promised himself, he would get up and scrounge for food. Next time…
Russell awoke randomly some time later. He had no way of knowing how much time had passed, but he guessed about an hour. The rumbling in his stomach was impossible to ignore now. He pushed himself to his feet and ambled into the streets, which were still filled with people moving purposefully from one place to another.
He sank onto a bench in the park and watched everyone mill around. It seemed as if everyone had a purpose except for him. After a while, the busyness made his head spin, so he closed his eyes for a few minutes before standing up and wandering over to the local Starbucks.
The line was out the front door. Russell sighed and leaned against the doorframe as he waited for the line to shorten. Slowly, the line dwindled until Russell was up at the counter. The barista wrinkled his nose at Russell but still recited his line: "What can I get for you today, sir?"
"Just a water, please." The smell of the fresh baked muffins made Russell's stomach hurt, and the gentle alternative music in the background made his head spin. Coming here had been a mistake. He should just leave.
As he turned to leave, dazed, a gentle but firm hand gripped his shoulder. "Stay. Please."
Russell's gaze traveled from the perfectly manicured, delicate hand to the caring, round face of a woman in her mid-thirties. A large red purse dangled from her shoulder, and she was fishing around in the pockets of her new, skinny jeans for a ten dollar bill. "Please, let me buy you something."
"I should go." Russell's words were so faint the music drowned them out, and he didn't have the heart to repeat them. "Nobody wants me here," he said a little bit louder, and this time his new friend heard them.
"I want you here." The woman held his gaze, her piercing blue eyes boring straight into his soul. "Please, let me buy you something," she repeated.
Russell relented and turned back around. The woman stepped up to the counter and placed the wrinkled $10 bill on the counter. "One tall skinny caramel macchiato and one breakfast sandwich, please."
The barista eyed them disdainfully but nodded. "Name for the order?" he asked as he held out her change.
"Lisa." The woman, Lisa, accepted the change and handed it to Russell. "For later," was all she said, and Russell was too tired to reject it. "Thank you," was all he managed.
The barista handed Russell his sandwich, and he bit into it eagerly. The woman walked him over to a table where they waited for her drink.
Russell was too hungry to make conversation as he devoured the sandwich. As soon as he finished, the barista called Lisa's name, and as she went up, she ordered another sandwich with her credit card. The barista sighed but handed her another one, and she slid the sandwich to Russell without another word.
Russell accepted the sandwich and devoured it. Once he finished, contented for the first time in weeks, he leaned back and watched her as she sipped her coffee, her blue eyes peering over the lid.
"Why are you doing this?" he managed to ask.
Lisa set her drink down and searched his tired, brown eyes. "Have you heard the story of boy who rescued starfish at the beach?"
"No," Russell admitted. "What does that have to do with this?"
"Well, the story goes that a young boy was at the beach and saw starfish had washed ashore and had no way of getting back into the ocean as the tide was going out. So he picked them up one by one and threw them back into the ocean. A man passing by asked him why he was doing this. 'Surely you know you can't save all of them', the man said. 'There are miles and miles of beach and hundreds of starfish per mile. It won't make a difference!' The boy looked at him as he threw another starfish into the sea and said 'It made a difference to that one.'"
"What does that have to do with me?" Russell's head still felt slow, despite the food in his belly.
Lisa smiled at him. "This is me throwing you back into the sea. Now all that you have to do is swim."