Learning to Help

I nearly didn’t go back.

The day had been a long one. I was nearly home. To go back meant not seeing my family for a moment longer.

The request wasn’t uncommon. People frequently ask me for help, and I often say no. Going back would have been unexpected.

But something made me turn. Something made me look back at the woman who had just asked me for money.

She still stood near the train station exit, petitioning commuters for spare change as they got off the train. Her head bent downward – as though a great weight pressed down upon her. Her body shook. She was crying.

My instincts told me to keep going – to walk home and forget the woman. “You can’t help everyone. You don’t have enough skill or resources to deal with her situation. Anything you do will just be temporary. You can’t understand her. Her pain is too unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.”

But I walked toward her anyways.

She shared that she’d been renting a room nearby. But the day before, she ran out of money. She couldn’t pay for the night’s rent. With nowhere else to go, with no one to turn to, she’d spent a sleepless night in the cold.

She had hoped to get enough money today to pay for shelter. She had hoped for enough to get something to eat. But the dollar she’d made so far wasn’t going to cover either of those.

It hurt me to hear her suffering. It made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure how or how much to help her.

worry
straight from the heart
as you approach the hurt
exposed, open to the other
kindness

Our default reaction to pain is often to pull back – to stay safe and comfortable. Our instincts often tell us to lean away from brokenness. I’m coming to believe those instincts are wrong. Maybe we should lean into it instead.

Facing the brokenness brings fear, vulnerability and uncertainty. But it’s also the mark of bravery, strength, and humanity.

***

I walked away feeling uneasy.

By many measures, I went further than most others would have. I talked to her. I took time to acknowledge her suffering. I made an effort to treat her with dignity. I gave her a hug. I donated a dollar. I did something.

But looking at what most people would have done is a poor measure. It is not against an unnamed other that I judge my actions. I must evaluate my actions against the person I wish to be.

And by that standard I knew I had not done enough. I held back. I should have done more.

failure
time and again
it breaks all your patterns
open, exposed to the other
learning

We want to live lives of extravagant service. We want to show compassion in all we do. Sometimes we succeed. But often we fall short. We don’t do enough. We err too much on the side of caution.

We won’t get the balance right every time. We may use our resources ineffectively. Other times we may hold them back when we should give more.

That’s part of the process. It’s a sign that we’re engaged. It’s a sign that we’re asking ourselves the right questions. We can take our experiences and learn from them. We can keep moving forward.

***

I don’t know if I’ll ever see the woman again. I hope she found more than just a place to spend the night and food to eat. I hope someone helped her.

And even though I don’t feel I did enough, I’m grateful for the encounter. I’m appreciative of the chance to show a small kindness. I’m thankful for the experience and learning. But most of all, I’m glad I went back.

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