Learning to Listen: A Humbling Lesson

BlogHer Original Post

I can't stop thinking about her. As I watched her walking away, already almost to the end of the mall parking lot, pulling her backpack tight around her shoulders as if it could make her invisible, I debated for a split second asking my friend to drive me up to her so I could beg her forgiveness and ask for a do over. But I didn't.

Instead I've turned our encounter over and over in my mind until it has become like a stone polished smooth by ocean waves. My prayers vacillate between petitions to make me a better person and then feeling too full of hubris by making it about me and asking God to just simply watch out for her.

It was a routine event I've experienced many times but I wish I could go back in time and open myself to being present and listening to another human speak to me.

I had dinner with a group of friends and had planned to pay for my portion with a credit card. The card I gave the server was declined. I had been fairly sure that I had room on that card but when it was declined I panicked a bit and hesitated to give her a different one unsure if I had mixed up balances or if there was a problem (I've been a victim of identity theft in the past but it turned out I had forgotten a yearly fee that had automatically processed that day). So, with the help of a couple of my friends chipping in, I spent my remaining cash on my share of the bill.

As we left and were getting into my friend's car a woman approached me and asked in a very soft voice if she could ask me a question. She asked a second time, a bit louder, to be sure I heard her and knew that she was directing her question to me. I didn't answer. Instead I told her sharply that if she needed help I was very sorry but I did not have any cash. Taken aback by my curt lecture, she slunk down and hurried off.

As I got in the car I realized that I had half my meal left over in a doggie bag. I had been so busy focusing on my worries and embarrassment and feeling of lack that I completely forgot what I had right in my hand. When I am approached by panhandlers I am often in a rush and alone. Not that it excuses my impatience but it makes me unlikely to stop and dig through my purse to find my wallet and open it up on the street. Also, given the recession and the fact that I live in a large urban area, simply running errands and going to the grocery store means that I can encounter half-a-dozen requests for aid or more in a single morning. But I feel helpless in the face of relentless need. I think to myself, better to give to a good organization rather than trying to pick and choose between individuals. The result is that I have already answered "no" before I am even asked.

I didn't give the woman in the parking lot a chance to speak. I don't know what she wanted to ask me. I just assumed, my heart hardened by the weight of so many requests. If I had allowed her to ask me what she wanted perhaps she would have requested money or indicated a need for food. I still had two dollar bills in my wallet and some change in addition to the bagged up food I planned to take home to have for lunch the next day. If that is what she needed, I could have given that to her. I had a check in my wallet, a bed to sleep in and kitchen to return to - I could live without a few dollars and some leftovers. Maybe she could not.

I have not been immune to the difficulties of the recession many of us have struggled with. But there for the grace of God go I. This I know. I wish that I had stopped and listened to the woman who wanted to ask me a question rather than the voices of fear in my head. I wish I had remembered the the stories I've never forgotten of similar encounters and how women I admire reacted in similar situations guide my actions instead. And I can only hope the next time she asks that she is heard.

How do you handle being approached by strangers? Do you have a standard response or do you respond based on the request? Is there a way we can best help those individuals in need especially given the economic difficulties so many face these days?

The stories I've never forgotten:

Jen Lemen: Everything We Needed: A Story about Vince, Me & the Streets of DC

The guy starts to talk, but I cut him off. “Tell me,” I ask him warmly, feeling like it’s old home week. “What do you need? Tell me what you really need.”...

I don’t know why I do these things, but I think it has to have something to do with wanting to feel the common threads that tie us all together. You can do something nice for someone which is all fine and good, but when you can connect–human being to human being–that goes so much farther than ten bucks at the Sunoco ever will....

What do you need to know today? I hope someone comes your way to help you know it in a powerful way.

Julie at Tangobaby: please please please let's help her

I met this beautiful family on my way home from a photo shoot today. I walked past them, just like the other people on their way home. I admit it. I saw her and sailed on by. I read her sign ($60 for a motel room... you know what kind of motel room $60 will get you in this city).

But I had seen the tears in her eyes, too, and so halfway down the block, I yelled at myself inside my head for being an asshole and went back. I had $30 in my wallet and gave it to her.

I'm not telling you this story so you can think I'm some sort of hero, 'cause I'm not.

Carolyn Tyler at KGO-TV: Homeless woman helped by Good Samaritan

When Julie Michelle got to the end of the block she turned around.

"So you go back and?" asked ABC7's Carolyn Tyler.

"Give her my $30 and tell her I would do more but I just lost my job," said Julie Michelle.

If she had not lost her job, Julie says she never would have been walking around the day she met the young woman.

BlogHer CE Mata H: A foolish thing I do when I am anxious about money

I have developed my own cure for those moments of anxiety which I offer here. I do a stupid thing. Something so stupid that if I had real reason to be anxious, I would be unable to do it-- consequently the doing undoes the anxiety. It is the Zen of financial anxiety for me. (I do not recommend this as a financial strategy - I am not a money doctor - your mileage may vary and all the usual caveats.)...

I gather up all the coinage in my pocket or at the bottom of my purse -- I wait until no one is around, and I throw it away. As I do it I know that if I had real reason to be fearful, I would never do this. So the fear leaves.

BlogHer CE Maria Niles also learns life lessons at PopConsumer

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


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