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facts & arguments


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I was recently part of a group of a dozen or so people who got together for the noble purpose of an all-you-can-eat ribs special at a downtown Toronto bar and grill.

The carnage was well under way, beginning to subside, in fact: Jokes flew, ideas were passed around, beer flowed, people wandered up and down the table to talk to friends.

Around the time when bills might start to appear, our server told us that two gentlemen from another table had, just before leaving, paid the tab for our entire table.

Twelve out of the 13 people at our table are blind or visually impaired, which had to have been the catalyst for this shocking act of generosity. An extremely rough calculation tells me that these fellows must have laid down about $700. They had included the gratuity as well.

We all sat in stunned silence. What do you do with a random act of anonymous generosity that you cannot politely decline, and for which you cannot graciously offer thanks?

Of course, the simple answer we all agreed upon was to pass it on, and we will. You may be familiar with the phenomenon of paying for the order of the person behind you in a drive-through line as an anonymous act of kindness. I have experienced this before, and I love the concept.

But this was different, both in scale and motive.

Everyone at our table is employed, or in school with good employment prospects. Obviously we could afford the extravagance of an all-you-can-eat meat fest or we wouldn't have been there.

In that moment of stunned silence, I know each of us was thinking: "That's huge, but I don't really need charity because I'm blind."

Most blind people I know have, at least once, been confronted with a stranger on the street who wants to give us money. I have learned to offer only token resistance to this.

To us, blindness is just ho-hum, everyday life, but I get that for some people it is an unimaginable prison, or at least a terrifying devastation. They want to offer compassion, make a connection, or alleviate the stab of conscience they feel for being able-bodied and for sometimes finding their own lives burdensome.

Money is a symbol. It is also extremely useful. Statistically, blind people are shockingly under-employed, and we rate near the bottom of the income scale relative to other disabilities.

I myself have always barely scraped by, so if someone's conscience is alleviated by giving me money I'll take it. The only time it really bothers me is when it's done wordlessly – money thrust into my hand by someone who is so afraid of me and my life that they cannot even make the human connection of talking to me.

But I am not so fastidious that I refuse.

What happened at the restaurant was more complex. These gentlemen must have seen that we could afford a dinner out, and that we were just a bunch of friends having a good time accompanied by food and drinks. Why, then, did they drop roughly $350 each?

Given the anonymity of the gesture, we could only guess. I took it not as charity, but as admiration.

Maybe they were using the eminently practical symbol of money to say how glad they were that, despite a serious disability, we could get together for a not-inexpensive night out with lots of laughs.

It's possible that the paths of the lives that got all 12 of us there that night were so enigmatic or awe-inspiring to these men that they really needed some way to say so, but didn't want to patronize us with awkward expressions of admiration that would just have made everybody uncomfortable.

I wonder so much about the conversation at their table.

Maybe seeing the challenges we had obviously overcome in order to be there had put some things in their own lives into perspective for them. Maybe it was a dare.

Or perhaps they had just won $20,000 at the racetrack and were feeling benevolent. Maybe they had just cheated someone in a shady business deal and were feeling slightly guilty.

What if they are worse off than we are, and went into debt on their credit cards because it really mattered to them to do something spectacularly generous for people who, regardless of our normal lives, do have to work harder than most people for most things?

We will never know. All we can do is not forget it, and try to spread it around.

Thanks, whoever you are. It was an incredible thing to do, and you turned a fun night with friends into something even nicer – a memory of anonymous generosity.

Christine Malec lives in Toronto.