Seattle's James McCartney wants you to join his selfless movement and change the feel of social media.
The cynic in me is listening to James McCartney and thinking: Dream on, brother.
McCartney thinks we need to better connect with each other, to stop on the street and help one another. We need to look each other in the eye and ask how we are, determine what we have in common.
“Do something that’s kind,” he told me — and by me, I think he means the universe.
“You don’t need to be an angel, or perfect. It’s just about sharing things that are kind.”
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Then — in a nod to the “Humans of New York” web series that captures the stories of people on the street — McCartney hopes people will take not a selfie, but a “self-less” of themselves in the act of being kind, then post it to an Instagram account he started called @joinourselflessmovement.
The idea is to shift social media “from self-ie centered to self-less promotion,” McCartney said, “and bring the world together.”
I take in this man, wide-eyed, quick-to-smile and painfully earnest, and wonder if he’s been in South Lake Union lately. People stand in long lunch lines, every one engrossed in their phones. They walk the streets with earbuds in, immune from interaction. And they’re busy. Rushed. Time is the most valuable asset in Seattle — aside from real estate.
Then I scrolled through the @joinourselflessmovement Instagram account and, well, the cynic started to soften. I get endless pitches from businesses wanting me to write about their donations of time and money. In seeking such attention, their good intent dies.
But these are people with stories and struggles. They seem to be caught in the act of charity. People of all stripes are shown smiling for the camera with one hand over their hearts and their fingers splayed into the sign for “I love you.” Alongside each photo, a paragraph reveals their hearts.
Beside the photo of a shirtless, middle-aged man, the story described how he lost a large part of his hearing in the military, but chooses not to collect the benefits that are rightly his: ” … the V.A. Doesn’t have enough money to help all of our veterans; I am doing well financially, so I would much rather let someone who really needs it get that money.”
Two young women and a man stand behind a plastic tub of sack lunches: “This is Christina, Tammy, and Uy. Along with friends, they made 300 sandwiches and spent their Saturday walking the rainy streets of Seattle, giving food to anyone in need.”
A woman named Mary wants to teach yoga to people with special needs. A postal worker in Greenwood explains why she works into her lunch break: “I know many people come here during their lunch break and they don’t have a lot of time, so I’m happy to stay here a little longer to help them.”
A pedicab driver named Cowboy refused money from a passenger with disabilities and shook his hand instead. A woman named Melanie writes inspirational poems for people she encounters at Green Lake.
In all, there are 126 photos and stories. McCartney is aiming for a thousand times more.
He dreams of the @ourselflessmovement catching on like the Ice Bucket Challenge, his Instagram feed deluged with posts of people with those they have helped, fed, listened to, connected with. All with hands over their hearts.
It would only take one celebrity, or one social-media influencer to send things viral. One semi-cynical newspaper columnist to spread the word and empower the movement.
McCartney came to Seattle two years ago, after growing up and teaching in Plattsburgh, N.Y. It was a bold, almost reckless move; he sold everything he had and moved here in the hopes of selling an idea for “a new format for internet-based TV” to Amazon or another tech company.
That hasn’t happened. In the meantime, McCartney has rented a room and is working as a Downtown Ambassador, a street-level concierge employed by the Downtown Seattle Association. The job puts him in daily contact with people from all walks of life: Homeless, tourists, tech workers.
“I came here for something completely different,” he said. “And now this is my primary focus.”
McCartney knows he is swimming against a tide of time, energy, money and the widespread belief that there are more important things to do. To capture. To say.
“I refuse to give up. I believe in it so emphatically,” he said. “Above everything else, it’s relentless determination. I am trying to emphasize the things that humans are doing right.”
He is hoping to make a documentary with a producer named K. Rocco Shields, and get corporate sponsors to finance it.
The Selfless Movement started last June, when McCartney saw a homeless woman sitting on a downtown Seattle sidewalk, in tears. He stopped to speak with her, learned she hadn’t eaten, got her some food and then sat with her while she ate it.
“I was trying to make a connection,” McCartney recalled.
A Seattle police officer stopped and told McCartney he and the woman were in violation of an ordinance that says you can’t sit on the sidewalk between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., and issued McCartney a warning. While the officer was writing him up, McCartney took his picture.
“I couldn’t believe that as I was trying to help a homeless person, I was being put into the police department’s system,” he said. “It was like a trigger.”
Not long after, McCartney spotted a man sitting out front of the Target store at Second and Pike streets. The bar on his walker had snapped. McCartney went into the store and got the manager to donate the tape he needed to repair it.
The bad feeling from being written up vanished: “It’s a matter of continuously pursuing it until you get to the yes,” McCartney said, “and then things can change overnight.
“Bringing people together in this day and age is virtually impossible, when you’re trying to do something that is nonreligious, nonpolitical and completely non-divisive,” he continued.
“It doesn’t matter what you are. This is something we all can agree on.”