A friend in another state wrote me a note this week.
It went something like this: “Tonight I was at the grocery store in the self-checkout lane. A woman and her 10-year-old daughter were next to me. They were obviously really poor. Torn, dirty clothes. They smelled. They were buying cheap peanut butter and bread. I had cheese that cost more than their food for the next few days. She clung to her money as she put it in the machine.”
Now, let me tell you about my friend.
She is a giving soul. She is not wealthy, but she is great at giving. She has learned the secret — giving to others provides more value to her than the money is worth. So, she buys dinner for strangers in restaurants. She buys cups of coffee for the people behind her in line at the drive through. She gives money to charitable organizations that help support people who live in poverty. She buys the “holiday dinner grocery bags filled with food to donate over the holidays.
She is also a talker. She is not afraid to talk to anyone.
So here is where her story gets interesting.
She wrote to me, “In the face of two real people going through a bad time, one in which I could have helped out, I was paralyzed.”
She didn’t want to be rude.
“My fear of saying the wrong thing impeded me from helping someone. What’s the worst that could have happened if I had offered help? They tell me they weren’t poor and had just finished cleaning their gutters or something? I don’t know,” she wrote.
She is right. She is also wise enough to know how quickly she recovers from being embarrassed, but neither of us know much about how long it takes to recover from hungry.
Her situation made me think of another friend — one who is a successful attorney today. A decade ago, she was a young, single mother struggling to get an education and working three jobs. Even though she wasn’t a complainer, several people took note of her efforts. One day as the holidays approached, one of them was courageous enough to fill the trunk of her car with food. That act of generosity changed my friend’s life. It was a bold act that could have been awkward and embarrassing for both of them, but her co-worker took the chance — and in doing so, her generosity has touched an untold number of lives.
Last week, my friend in the grocery store was paralyzed with fear and didn’t take that chance. I’ve done the same thing before and missed opportunities to help or share with others. Instead, she went home and cried. I don’t blame her at all. Maintaining everyone’s dignity is complicated and can be uncomfortable, but as my friend learned, it’s awkwardness worth risking.
Once struck with the magnitude of missed opportunities, something clicks in some of us — and we just start living our lives differently.
“We just seem to get in our own way too much,” she wrote. “I felt so stupidly pampered — and so glad I wasn’t them, which made me feel guilty.”
We’re not accustomed to running into hungry people in the grocery store, or at least people we recognize as hungry. When we do, we don’t know what to do. The lesson is, “Be prepared to help — look for the opportunities all around.”
You will be amazed at what it will do to your life. Who wants to go home and cry over a missed opportunity at helping someone in need, when the answer of what to do is right in front of you — albeit a little out of your comfort zone?
The next time my friend will know what to do. I’m convinced things like this happen to us so that we’re prepared for something bigger — even though she and I both wish she could have helped that pair too. Maybe my friend’s candor will help others learn too.
Maybe you, yes, that would be you, who just read that sentence, will be presented with an up-close and personal opportunity to make a positive difference in the life of someone or several someones sooner than you’d expect. Or maybe you already have.
Either way, you know what to do.