Careful What You Ask For

Friday night I listened to someone tell a story of one of those moments when our paths cross those of others. He was waiting for the local Best Buy to open because he needed to make a quick purchase, when someone pulled up next to him in tears. He had an moment to just talk with that person, to make sure they were okay, to be briefly part of another life’s timeline. Some call these moments coincidence; I’ve learned to not be that naive. That hadn’t happened to me, at least not in that demonstrative a way, for some time. “That would be incredible,” I thought as I listened to the story. Perhaps that I would have a similar opportunity.

Careful what you ask for.

Last night was a low-key sort of evening for Karen and I (since when did Saturday nights become about staying in with a movie and cooking dinner? I’m officially old now…). Dessert required a quick supply run to the nearby grocery store, so I jumped in the car and headed about a block down the street. It was a man’s grocery shopping expedition: definite list, in out and done in under five minutes. Just the way I like it. I was standing in line at the self check-out kiosk (I so like not having to deal with people forcing themselves to be nice while they bag my groceries, something I’m perfectly capable of doing myself), and I noticed a woman enter from the other end. She looked like had recently been to the pool or something, which would have gone with the beautiful evening in Virginia yesterday. When the kiosk in front of me was momentarily vacant, she began looking around it, as though she had lost something. It took her a few seconds. I think she checked in with the attendant that monitors the kiosks, I’m not sure. Then she left. I was already scanning and bagging…not really paying much attention at that point.

Moments later as I made my way across the parking lot to my car, this same woman, along with at least one other person, were in their vehicle, which happened to be parked next to my car. I was placing my grocery bag into the back seat when she turned. As both doors of her SUV were opened next to the passenger side of my car, I assumed she was going to acknowledge this and close them to permit me to back out more easily when I had entered my car. They looked as though they were searching for something that had been lost, as she had when looking over the check-out kiosk in the store.
“Excuse me, sir.” she asked. “Do you have a cell phone I could borrow?”
It occurs to me now that my hand dropped to the pocket that held my phone. Several thoughts immediately ran through my head. First, my obsessive compulsive germ-freak tendencies kicked in at the thought of a stranger’s lips being near my phone. My street smarts came next, thinking that she and the other person wanted to draw me closer to take me down, lift my wallet as well as my phone, and drive off into the sunset like Bonnie and Clyde. Then came my common sense, thinking of the hassle of return calls that would come from whatever numbers she might call with my phone, as my number popped up on who-knows-who’s caller ID. All these things flew through my head in a just a few seconds. So did the fact that I didn’t want to just lie and say I didn’t have a phone.
“I’m sorry.” was all I could reply. She nodded and I got into my car, momentarily annoyed that she didn’t close her doors so that I could back out of my parking place more easily.

I think it took me less than 30 seconds to realize that I had just received what I had asked for…an opportunity to positively impact someone’s life, not just with words, but in a tangible way. I had received that chance less than a day after asking for it, and I had frozen and bolted when it was there. So, I get to say this morning, as I have many mornings in my life, that I regret last night.

Our culture is dominated by fear and narcissism. We don’t want to engage others because we either see ourselves as being above doing so, or because we’re afraid of what could potentially happen to us if we did. For me, my selfishness last night was motivated by the latter. Helping someone always involves risk. I approached a homeless man in a Starbucks parking lot in California two summers ago to give him money. I didn’t know what that person was capable of, but I knew I felt compelled to give a few dollars. That was risky, but no more risky than handing a woman in the adjacent parking space my cellphone in broad daylight would have been yesterday evening. When we feel compelled to do these things, I don’t think it comes by accident, especially not after we have just asked for the moment to arise.

There’s a lot to be said for moving beyond fear, especially when the benefits far outweigh the potential cost. Assisting that person through that moment, whatever the underlying actual need was, was far bigger than the things about the situation that caused me to fear, however legitimate they may have been. Hopefully, another moment will come about in the near future, and, hopefully, I’ll be able to move past fear in order to do something important for someone else.


Careful what you ask for.

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