Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Paying It Forward: Duty to Help

I was 11 and walking home from tuition class a couple of streets from home. A man in a nice Volvo drove slowly and pulled up next to me, asking me for directions. I knew the area well, and gave him simple directions to get there. He wasn’t sure he caught my directions right, and asked if I would step into the car to bring him to his destination, which was probably less than a mile away.

Something seized up on the inside of me, I summoned an annoyed look and firmly said ‘No’. He caught the signal, knew I wasn’t a simple-minded damsel, thanked me, and drove off.

I walked home, relieved, while replaying the horror of what could have happened had I been naive and eager to be helpful and stepped into his car.

Getting into a stranger’s car or hitchhiking presents the same possibility of danger - my parents made sure to drill it into us children’s thick skulls to never, ever accept rides from strangers. Little did I think I’d neglect my parents’ warning in my moment of desperation two days ago when I got lost and separated from my friend on a 100-mile bike ride in a county I was totally unfamiliar with. To make matter worse, I was tired, thirsty, hungry, and depleted every ounce of energy to ride any further, and had no cell phone or means of communication to reach my friends.

Despite my frantic wave for help on the side of a busy road, I watched with dismay as one after another driver in fancy cars zoomed past me, ignoring my plight. As I grew more weary and dejected, my desperation got the better of me and I resorted to stepping in the middle of the road so oncoming cars had no option but to stop for me. It worked.

A driver stopped her car and waved her hands - she thought I wanted to cross the road and was waving for me to do so; but no, I wasn’t looking to cross the road - I wanted her to stop in her tracks to help me. I needed help and was going to get it, by hook or by crook.

Thankfully it was a female driver - I would have been a little more wary and considered alternative options if it was a male driver. She got off her car, immediately introduced herself as a home nurse (and was indeed dressed in working nurse’s clothes, plus I saw large boxes of medical equipment in her car, so I was assured that she was honest and that I could trust her) and proceeded to help me in more ways than I could ever repay her for. She lent me her phone to call my husband, drove in circles in the area as I wasn’t sure where exactly my friends were, finally, after much searching and driving over 20 miles, she brought me safely to my very worried friends.

For all of her trouble and kindness, she expected nothing in return, only that I pay the kindness forward to someone, anyone who needed help in future. I told her I would do so.

Yesterday, on the way to a lunch appointment, I saw a boy with his bike lying by the side of the road, with what looked like a dented wheel.

Something screamed on the inside of me to “pay it forward” as I promised to.

But I deliberated. I didn’t jump at the opportunity to pay it forward as eagerly as I promised my benefactor two days ago.

Still driving and approaching the traffic junction where I could see the boy by the side of the road, I studied the situation intently: he was sitting upright - which meant that he was not injured. He was making a phone call - which meant that help was on the way. His bike didn’t look expensive - it probably wouldn’t be costly to replace the damage. It was a busy intersection - someone else would stop to help.

Plus, if I had stopped to help the boy, I would be extremely late for my appointment, besides, I would have inconvenienced my friend who drove out to meet me for lunch. Do I tell her hey, a situation came up, it’s really late notice, but I’m sorry I have to postpone our appointment? I couldn’t bring myself to do that - perhaps I didn’t want to?

As I reflect on the two events (me receiving help, and me not reaching out to help), I wonder if I had been selfish and unreliable to prioritize my sense of duty to uphold an appointment with a friend, over a more overwhelming responsibility to help a boy in need?

Have I, in that situation, made an irresponsible decision, or, demonstrated an omission to help and pay a kindness forward?

How often are we presented with opportunities to do good, and fail to act on that opportunity, because of seemingly more important priorities? In this age of abundant options, have we gotten our priorities and sense of responsibilities wrong?

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