November 6, 2012

Do the Right Thing

It’s beginning to become uncomfortably routine: disaster strikes by either an act of God or deranged person, and then we see them: the better angels in all of us. Celebrities hop on fundraising bandwagons for humanitarian organizations, “everyday heroes” do valiant deeds to sustain people in the hour of need and rival politicians beat their swords into plowshares as the rest of us look on and wonder why it takes a tragedy for people to simply. Do. The Right. Thing.
At least I do. I mean, why is it so hard to help? To really look someone in the eye who’s in distress – even a little distress – and help? It’s not for lack of people who are hurting, that’s for sure.
Just go to the store. Park your car in the first open space. Grumble to yourself that the space is ten miles away from the entrance and that you’re stuck hauling groceries alone. After working all week. Again. You see her, a woman about your age. She’s crying.  Weeping. It’s that familiar cry as if she’s just found out about a loved one’s death. And you know that gut wrenching cry because you’ve cried that way before. You’ve heard your own sobs that seemed to have been coming from someone else. Only now it is someone else. You start to run over because you want to say really, it’ll be okay even though you don’t know what’s wrong, or if it’ll really be okay…but that cry. You remember that cry and how all you needed to hear was that it. Would. Be. Okay. But your mind sees two other older people, maybe her parents comforting her, and you convince your feet that her parents are helping her, and that they should just head toward the entrance. Your feet obey, and even though something within you is relieved, you never forget that woman or her cry.

Years later, a different parking lot at a different store. Jamie, Georgia and I were piling in the car on our way to the next Saturday thing when I saw her. A different woman. “Jamie, she’s crying…” as if he could fix her situation just as easily as he fixed our vacuum cleaner. He swung the car around and caught up to her. “Honey, are you okay?” even as I was still halfway hoping she’d say she was fine, but she didn’t. “Between sobs she answered “I…have…to…get…my baby!”
You know, there’s something about a panicked, pained voice. “Where’s your baby?” She told us that he was less than six blocks away, and even though she was walking fast, she was still walking. Jamie and I looked at each other and in two seconds, she was in the front seat with him, and I was in back with Georgia. She stopped crying, but hadn’t really calmed down, and to be honest, I blanked out on what to say. But Jamie didn’t. Like a first responder, he calmly asked some critical questions: Is your baby in danger? Are you in danger? Can we call 911? Is your husband going to hurt you or the baby?” All her answers were negative. We pulled up to the house, and Jamie waited until she was in safely, and took careful note of the address.

And then we went onto the next thing. But I couldn't help but think...
People who need us are messy. That woman was sobbing, breathing hard and near hysterical. It was messy. Maybe we just like our messy-people-in-need at arms-length, far enough where a check will help them – or at least out of earshot. Maybe that’s what makes helping so hard.
Even if we help, everything won’t be okay. We can’t always make the crying stop or make everything magically okay. Maybe deep down, we know the only thing we can do is help someone limp along. Maybe that’s what makes helping so hard.
We’re not gamblers. Look, I know some people would say we took a gamble by loading up a complete stranger in our own personal space and going into an unfamiliar situation. They’d be right. And even though it was the right thing to do, it was a hard thing to do because of that. But leave it to Georgia to remind me why we we get messy, accept that we can only do so much and take the gamble -- and just do the hard things when she said:
“Well…we did the right thing, and God knows about it… right?”


  1. Bravo! I agree that sometimes something major has to happen to bring out the kinder side in all of us. The bigger question is why aren't we at that soup kitchen, why don't we take 10 seconds to ask someone if they're okay. Sometime all those messy people want to do is talk.

  2. "People who need us are messy." Concise. Accurate. xox

    1. Yup. I've been messy a time or two...or three.