When my husband and I were first married, we lived in an apartment which was conveniently located right next to a Kroger. There were many times when I would park my car in my designated spot by our apartment and walk over to the grocery store after work to pick up a few items for supper. I reasoned that the exercise would do me good, and by the time I waited for the traffic to slow down to make the necessary turns out of our apartment complex and into the store parking lot, do my shopping, then do the reverse, walking was just quicker. (Now that I have four kids—3 teens and one that isn’t a teen but eats like one—and a grocery list as long as my arm, it’s hilarious to me that I would routinely walk out of Kroger with only a couple of bags.)
In order to make the trek from our apartment to the Kroger parking lot, I would have to climb down a fairly steep set of steps carved into the side of a bank of dirt. If memory serves me, there was a railing, but, though I was in my mid-20’s and somewhat spry, it could be a precarious climb.
On one occasion, I was met at the bottom of the stairs on my way back to my apartment by a tiny elderly woman who had a similar idea. I’m not sure if she lived in our apartment complex or if she was heading to the nearby senior center, but she also had groceries to haul up the steep stairs. I could tell she was trying to decide how she could safely make the ascent as she hung two or three bags on each wrist and stared up at the incline.
“Can I help?” I asked, setting my bags on the ground. The woman nodded and handed me her groceries which I carried to the top of the steps. Then I came back down and held her arm as she slowly made her way up. I headed back down one more time to get my bags and made another offer. “Can I help you get your groceries somewhere?”
“No, dear,” she answered, revealing a slight accent, maybe something Russian or from a country in Eastern Europe. “I can do for myself now.” She reached into her ancient pocketbook and pulled out a change purse.
“You don’t need to pay me,” I told her. “It was no problem.” Ignoring my words, the woman grabbed my hand and thrust a pile of dimes into my open palm. “Seriously. I was happy to do it,” I said as I tried to refuse the coins.
But she wouldn’t take no for an answer. “When someone wants to give you something, you should take it,” she barked irritably. She snapped her change purse shut and shuffled off to the left. I eventually headed to the right, the cache of dimes growing sweatier and sweatier in my hand as I walked across the steamy asphalt to my apartment. I felt abused and chastised, wondering what I’d done wrong.
I’ve thought about that woman many times, and not because it was an especially unusual moment. It didn’t spark a lifelong friendship Tuesdays with Morrie-style or change my outlook on grocery shopping or stair climbing or the irrelevance of coins in our U.S. currency. Though it happened more than twenty years ago, I think the reason that made that memory stick in my head was her insistence that I be paid for my simple chore and her obvious frustration with me when I tried to refuse it.
But that’s the thing about helping others—or really any interactions we have with other humans—there can be a lot of layers, both for the helper and the person being helped. What’s the helper’s motivation? Could the aid being given somehow hurt the person being helped? With all the ways to intentionally and unintentionally offend, it sometimes makes you wonder if it’s even worth it to get involved.
I turn to the advice which the Apostle Paul gave to the Philippian church. He said, “If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (The Message)
Forget yourself long enough to see the best way to help, offering equal parts dignity and compassion.