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.

Pressing Pause

What is it about time that causes dilution?

I remember my first professional position after I had graduated from college. I wore a tie to work every day, because I felt as though I had went to school for four years to earn that privilege (okay, so I grew out of the tie thing…). I remember the excitement that going to the office every morning held for me then, the challenge that accompanied every day. The excitement and newness of the whole thing created a strong impression in my mind. I remember the drive home passing a baseball field in the summer, and sliding into the parking lot in the winter. I remember the friendships made with co-workers. Inevitably, I remember moving forward.

Eventually, I moved to a corner office. I specialized a bit. I took on extra responsibilities, and ultimately moved to a different division with more exciting work. That move involved switching offices. Ultimately, I look back to recognize that as a catalyst that led to my owning my faith, but that’s a series of events for another post. I remember when I would occasionally return to my original office with the new position. Despite the excitement of the new job, I remember looking down the hallway in which my former corner office was located somewhat wistfully, remembering what it was like when it all first began.

During my college years, I had a similar experience with theatre. I passionately loved every second of every performance, regardless of how much stress was involved, until somewhere around my junior year, when the politics and repetitive pressure of the school came crashing in and I lost my love for it for a while, stepping away entirely for a few months, a victim to burnout. Yet, now, when I recall those first years, I remember them with all of the positivity and excitement that originally existed.

After grad school, I’ve found my faith to have suffered a similar loss. I remember the passion and excitement that filled me when I first owned my faith, first accepted it in full. I can look back over my seminary career and watch it progressively become less passionate as I pursued ministerial vocations for a short time, and more during my theological studies. It occurred to me tonight as I was catching up on some reading that I don’t feel the passion that I once did in my faith, even as recently as a few years ago. There’s so much junk to bog it down, so many politics, so many petty differences and theological mishmash, that I forget the peace that originally pervaded my life, even though it is still there if I stop to listen for it.

While that first job was a formative experience in my life, it was one of those things that you recognize is just necessary to move on from at some point. I rediscovered my passion for theatre years later, although in retrospect I didn’t really ever stop engaging in it. I do theatre for the same reason I write: I don’t know how to not do either one. My faith is just as intrinsic, and I am certain that the passion will return at some point, likely as I distance myself more from what is unimportant and focus more on what is important (assuming, of course, that I acquire the wisdom to differentiate the two).

I am in hopes that time’s ultimate effect is not to soften the passion that comes with new changes in life, nor to dilute the spark with cynicism as we discover the inevitable negative side to different elements of our life that were filled only with the perception of promise and no difficulty when we first embarked upon them. If time erodes our naivete, however, then I think it is not necessarily a bad thing. At the end of the day, I am in hopes that the effect is like aging on wine, and we emerge from our life endeavors with a better result because of the difficulties experienced in the middle. In short, I am clinging to a positive perspective on the benefits of realism vs. the callousness of pessimism that time tends to breed when we encounter the obstacles inherent in all of our life’s pursuits. I am staying hopeful that the entire rest of the journey won’t be fraught with the need for sheer willpower to replace energetic engagement in our faith, our art, our vocations.

Only time will tell.