The Other Side of The Bell

I’ve read that scientists are working on a real cloak of invisibility, one that would allow you to simply disappear. I can save them a lot of time and trouble, because I’ve stumbled onto the secret:

Become a bell ringer for a charity during the holidays.

A friend of mine volunteers every year, standing outside a grocery store, wearing a Santa hat and ringing the bell. Once again this year I joined him. We stood together for hours in temperatures well below freezing, stamping our feet to keep warm, and occasionally darting inside to grab hot chocolate.

When he took a break and left to run some errands, I manned the donation kettle and shook the little brass bell. It was one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life.

I observed human nature in action, a real-life lab experiment on how people behave in what - to them - is an awkward relationship. Some people couldn’t have been nicer, whether they plopped money in the kettle or not. They’d say hi, maybe make a comment about the cold, or at least nod.

But the majority of people who strode past on that busy afternoon were determined to avoid eye contact. I had become, in some respects, invisible.

So, for the record, and to offer an assist for people - maybe you - who don’t know how to handle that situation during the holiday season, allow me to explain the point of view of those on the other side of the bell.

  • We’re not “bums” looking to pocket your money. I make a terrific living as a writer and morning radio show host; my friend is a very successful attorney; many others have similar careers. We ring the bell because we believe in giving back.
  • We can see you. You might race by on a mission, but craning your neck to avoid glancing our way is actually kind of funny. It looks almost painful. You don’t have to do that.
  • We’re not judging you by your actions. You may have donated earlier, and, if so, millions of people appreciate it. You may be in a hurry, and just want to get in and out of the store as quickly as possible; we all can understand that. Or you simply may not care to give anything. Trust me, nobody will resent you.
  • It won’t hurt you to merely acknowledge the presence of the bell ringer. It’s what your parents would’ve called basic, common courtesy: a nod, a wave, a hello, a Merry Christmas. It doesn’t commit you to donating anything. It’s simply the nice thing to do. Trust me, I won’t take your decision personally.

Hey, I’m no saint. For ages I did the neck-crane myself, fearful of establishing any connection with that stranger outside the store. But over the past few years I’ve volunteered with several charitable causes, and I’ve witnessed every possible contortion that a body can do to keep from making eye contact.

And now, after another stint in the cold outside that store, I want to spread the word: Bell ringers are there to help, not to pressure you. If you have some extra change to give, great. If not, could you at least spare a smile?

Happy holidays.


Originally published in 2013 . . . but still relevant. ;)

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