I was walking home last week and I was feeling pretty great about myself. I had just finished a “working” coffee with friends, where we gossiped and made travel plans through semi-productivity. It was a fresh, sunny, satisfying autumn day and I found myself deliberately kicking up the leafs. And then, about two blocks from my house I saw an elderly woman – around 80, I guessed – struggling with a cart full of groceries while negotiating her cane. She would take a few seemingly exhausting steps, dragging the cart, and then stop. It was clear that she was having a tough time.
I surprised myself by asking her if I could pull the cart home for her. She was clearly surprised, too. I took the handle, and she more confidently grabbed hold of her cane, and we very slowly made our way to her house down the block – a house, I learned, she had lived in for almost 50 years. English wasn’t her first language, so we attempted a little small talk but mostly walked in contented silence. When we got to her house, I lifted the cart up the front stairs and wished her a nice day. She asked me my name and said, “God bless you, Sarah.” I could tell that I had made her day. And, with her gratitude and her touching surprise that someone wanted to stop and help her, she made mine, too.
What struck me is how rarely I do this. This wasn’t an emergency, when duty really calls; she would have made it home without me. She just needed a hand. I’m still trying to figure out what makes me stop and what makes me continue on my way – both in a specific way and in a broader sense. When I think about the money I practically throw down a dark pit – the 2am vodka soda I don’t need, the sixth little black skirt – I sometimes wonder what else I could or should do with my time and money. It’s not just a privilege to have things; it’s also a privilege to be in a position to give. I’m lucky to be in a position where I could give a couple of dollars to someone who’s struggling when I walk past them on my way to another dinner with beloved friends. I’m lucky to be able to sponsor some school uniforms for girls in underdeveloped countries when I’m yet again tempted to overdo it on Xmas presents. And I’m lucky to be young and fit enough to stop and make it a little easier for someone to get home safely with their groceries.
There are, of course, limits to how much you can give. And, working extremely hard, I understand that a key part of the enticement isn’t just some abstract personal or professional success, but also the remunerative advantages that should come along with working weekends and evenings, as I so often do. I don’t feel guilty for eating nice meals or drinking fancy cocktails, and I don’t feel bad about buying nice, sometimes expensive things when I need them. For example, I’m currently having a love affair with the new angora-trimmed winter coat I recently purchased in London. (The impulse buys that so often sit in the back of my closet and make me feel like a jerk every time I look at them are an entirely different story. I’m still working on completely breaking myself of that habit.)
I guess the point is that I’m still trying to find a balance between what to give and what to keep. You don’t have to feel bad about what you’re lucky enough or hard working enough to have in order to give. And you don’t have to give cash. There is always someone who needs a door held open, or help with luggage or even just a well-timed smile. Sometimes it’s just a matter of tuning into those around us instead of keeping our heads down and plowing through. Last week, by paying attention and putting some empathy into practice I made two people a little happier.