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Observations: Through the joys and tears of humanity, ride on, Rumi

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image We don’t know the pains and struggles of those we inhabit this planet with, but we can know one thing: Others are just like us, replete with joys and fears. Photo Mitch Traphagen

We don’t know the suffering of others; we probably don’t even know the struggles of our neighbors.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Corporations may be loosely defined by law as people but they are, at best, soulless people. That’s not all bad, of course, and by law they are also required to maximize shareholder value. As such, their priorities aren’t on a family or a community or on friends but on money — as much money as “humanely” possible. Let’s be real about this — most actual people wouldn’t abandon (lay off) a child in order to maximize the family’s annual profit margin.

I once worked as an executive with one of America’s largest retailers, the one that did not begin with a “W.” At that time, more than two decades ago, the company did actually project something of a soul, a projection that was from the people running and working in the company. They wanted to make lots of money, of course, but they also had a tangible drive to do good things. They weren’t even all that interested in publicizing the good things. Times, of course, change and it’s possible that company has changed somewhat as well. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. In the end, it does little good to put down corporations, as they are responsible for a lot of the paychecks that put food on the table. But if they are indeed people in the eyes of the law, it probably could also be recognized that they are incredibly greedy people.

Just like everyone else, right? No, I don’t think so. I’m one of the naive that believes there truly is something called altruism and that more people than not possess it. I think most people are generally decent and caring, that they are just like you and me, just trying to get by in life, making things as good as possible without consciously making things worse.

Yet there are plenty of people out there, some of them supposed experts, that say altruism doesn’t exist. They believe that people are just like corporations in that, when it comes right down to it, they won’t do anything with absolutely nothing to gain from it. How sad life must be for those people.

The human behind one of Facebook’s most popular pages, Humans of New York, is named Brandon Stanton. A few years ago he set out on a mission to photograph people in New York, to document ordinary lives in all of the extraordinary beauty that lies in that sheer ordinary-ness. Stanton has been incredibly successful and, with more than a million followers, has three times the number of “likes” as famed photographer Annie Leibovitz.

Although he is clearly making a living at it, he doesn’t appear to be making much of an effort to convert his following into cash. He spurns corporate endorsements and several months ago when retailer DKNY used a number of his photographs without permission or compensation, he had a sure-fire lawsuit that could have approached the six figures for him. Instead, he urged the company to make a settlement by donating a large sum of money to a Brooklyn YMCA summer camp, and then asked his followers to show the company how it is done. In the end, he raised more than $100,000 for the camp and just last week, a large number of underprivileged kids were able to take advantage of his generosity, enjoying a summer camp they would never otherwise have been able to afford.

In an article in this month’s American Photo magazine, Stanton said that he is already doing just what he wants to do, so it wouldn’t much matter if he had more money.

Last week, he met a young boy named Rumi and his mother. Rumi has loved horses for all of his six years of life and had recently heard that a horse could be purchased for $1,000. So, with his beautifully supportive mother sitting nearby, he unfolded a sheet in New York’s Washington Square Park and offered some of his horse toys and cowboy gear for sale in the hopes of raising the needed funds. After a full day, he had earned one dollar. According to Stanton, he was a little downtrodden but was not discouraged from working to achieve his dream.

The little boy apparently stuck in Stanton’s mind because that night Stanton went home and began making some calls. He first determined that while a horse could be had for $1,000, it would be nearly impossible for a family of modest means living in a small apartment to actually afford to keep it. So then Stanton called Rumi’s mother and proposed an idea. After talking, both the mother and Stanton had agreed that now would be a really good time for something good to happen to Rumi.

Stanton posted his idea on his Humans of New York Facebook page — a plan to raise $7,000 to send Rumi and his family on an all-expense paid trip to a dude ranch in Colorado. On the ranch, Rumi would even have his own horse for the entire week. Stanton posted a link to a fundraising website and kicked in $300 of his own money to get things started, asking if anyone else could afford to toss a few coins into the cowboy hat.

The $7,000 was raised in just 15 minutes. Within an hour it was over $20,000. By the end of the day, it had topped out at more than $32,000. The remaining funds will be donated to Equestria, a New York-based organization dedicated to providing riding lessons to children with disabilities. “This organization does tons of good, and holds a special place in the hearts of Rumi and his parents,” Stanton said.

Well over a thousand people donated money to make a dream come true for a six-year-old boy they don’t know and would never even meet.

I know that corporations do good things in the world, not the least of which is to provide a living for millions of people. But corporations can’t shed tears of sheer happiness over a dream come true for a six-year-old boy. Only real people can do that. Only real people would.

We don’t know the suffering of others; we probably don’t even know the struggles of our neighbors. Everywhere you look there are problems, sadness and misery. But alongside and beyond that there is beauty and compassion, the kind that helps to mitigate the fear and the tears. That is something only people possess. That is something that we can do for each other. We can look beyond ourselves and see others for what they are: people just like us.

Ride on, Rumi. Your dream-come-true has caused some tears to fall, but they are the good kind, the kind that pulls deep feelings and reminds us that we are all in this together. It reminds us of our humanity, something that only we as people can have.

P.S.: Why no photo of Rumi and his mother? Because he’s just a kid with a family trying to get by. Stanton asked his followers to at most just give them a smile and a nod if they recognize them in the city. You can meet him on the Humans of New York Facebook page.

And speaking of Stanton, his Humans of New York book will be out this fall.

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