Monday, April 27, 2009

Taken for a Ride

"It can become a daily practice to humanize the people that we pass on the street. When I do this, unknown people become very real for me. They come into focus as living beings who have joys and sorrows just like mine, as people who have parents and neighbors and friends and enemies, just like me. I also begin to have a heightened awareness of my own fears and judgments and prejudices that pop up out of nowhere about these ordinary people that I've never even met. I've gained insight into my sameness with all these people, as well as insight into what obscures this understanding and causes me to feel separate."--Pema Chodron, from Taking the Leap

My husband has a good friend who always stops to give money to the homeless. And he doesn't just give them money without looking at them, quickly handing them a buck and retreating back into his shell. He smiles and interacts with the person. This is just the kind of guy he is, my husband says. I think we all know a guy (or gal) like that, someone who is generous without making a show of it, someone whose personality is just inherently kind.

Mike once said that one of the reasons he married me was because I had a good heart. And I try to live up to that because that is the kind of person I want to be in the world. But, like many ordinary mortals, I also fall short sometimes.

Like the time that I was walking to work in the morning and exchanged glances with an old lady in a wheelchair. She was practically in the middle of the sidewalk, so to walk around her without acknowledging her presence would have been weird. So I smiled at her, and she looked at me and asked, "Excuse me, can you wheel me over to the CVS?"

I was pleased that I looked trustworthy enough for her to ask me for a favor. I took the handles of the wheelchair and started to push her. It was a lot harder than I thought--she wasn't obese, but not exactly svelte either, and I got the impression that the wheelchair was less than state-of-the-art. I pushed her down the sidewalk, trying my best not to crash into anyone. The chair kept wanting to turn toward the edge of the sidewalk, like an unruly shopping cart, and it took all of my meager arm strength to pull her back from the curb. She didn't say anything as I wheeled her which was a good thing because I was getting winded and talking would have been a strain. Finally we reached the entrance to CVS (would she need me to go in with her? Help her shop? Should I offer? I'd be late for work) and she said, "Actually, can you push me to those lights...down there." She pointed. Another two blocks. I shook my hands out and then repositioned them on the chair handles and resumed. When we got to the lights, I noticed we were in front of an apartment building. Judging from her messy hair and demeanor I had pegged her for homeless, but maybe she was just a little eccentric. It was certainly a nice building she lived in. She thanked me and it was the first time she smiled at me.

I went into a nearby Au Bon Pain to grab a multi-grain bagel, feeling good that I was able to help someone, make a connection with a stranger. Behind me, a guy in a ski hat asked me "Did she want you to push her in the chair?"

I paused in the doorway, "Yes."

"Ah, she got you. She's gotten me too a couple of times. I mean, how can you say no?"

The way he said it made it seem like I had been tricked. This was not a foreign feeling for me--I've found that being nice to strangers also has its drawbacks. She pegged me for a push-over is what happened. But she was an old woman, after all, and if she had to spend her days asking strangers to push her around, well, that must be a rotten deal for her.

Yet when I saw her again a few weeks later, I averted my eyes. Just pretended not to see her. I was late for work, true, but I also didn't want to push her. I was tired and it had been an ordeal. Let someone else do it, I thought. Some other pushover. I feel badly about that now. There's definitely a limit to my generosity--I give when it's convenient for me. And that's too bad. I'd like to me more like Mike's friend, giving everyone, no matter if I know them or not, my unfettered time and attention.


sallymandy said...

Hi Jennifer,

I think you pegged a really common dilemma here. I know it's one of mine. I've done things like your husband's friend before, and sometimes it feels right and wonderful. I've also walked the other way, walked past people, you know the sort of thing. It's a tough call. We can't be all things to all people, yet compassion is supposed to be the middle way. Thought provoking post. Thank you for it.

Nathan said...

What I noticed is how the comment from the guy who had also pushed her triggered a bit of suspicion in you. Makes me wonder if you might have reacted differently if you had never run into that guy, or someone else that had helped her. At the same time, I do think it's important to recognize our limits, and be aware of why they are limits. Is it a limit because I don't want to do something, or it's inconveient? Or is it a limit coming up out of a need to rest,or because your energy is processing something else in your life?

Sometimes, I think we get hooked on an idea that compassion means working until you drop for the benefit of others. But then, if you do that, you burn out pretty fast and can't do much for anyone.

Pattern and Perspective said...

I agree with Nathan. What if she really needed help? Maybe the guy felt like he was being used, but realistically the lady just needed help. Maybe the guy was selfish.

I think it's good to have a good heart. I will help, too, when needed; but, I will not be taken advantage of. I don't think having a good heart means giving giving giving. I think if you follow moral & legal codes - you have a good heart!