It was late evening on a bitterly cold Sunday. Mike and I had gone to the gym, and were returning home. As we passed the Simpson Church homeless shelter, we were waved down by several men standing on the corner. I wasn’t sure what was going on, as Mike slowed to a stop and pressed the button to open the drivers side window. It was dark, I was cold, and I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to stop so I asked Mike to please move on. But he didn’t.
One of the men approached closer to the car, his hands held in the air, open palms toward Mike. He asked for directions to the overflow shelter downtown. His language, his posture, the way he held his hands were all meant to reassure us that he intended no harm and I realized that we weren’t being scammed or victimized. These men were simply in need of a warm place to spend the night; a little assistance. Suddenly, I was grateful Mike had been driving, instead of me.
Life is full of these moments – the ones where a seemingly small choice is required of us. Sometimes, the moment seems insignificant to the degree that we don’t even realize there’s a choice being made. Smile or not at the slow grocery checker? A word of caution to the person behind you to take care, the sidewalk is slick just there. Offer to take a photo so the happy group of strangers can all be in it. Other times, the moment calls for something more significant – an investment of time or cash, an emotional commitment, an inconvenience to ourselves. In these moments, we not only know we’re making a choice, we know the choice is bigger than the moment. Still, the choice is ours.
It has, famously and truthfully, been said that “it takes a village to raise a child”. The need to be part of a caring and generous village doesn’t end at childhood, though. Successfully navigating this life – whether you are five or fifty – takes a village. We don’t discuss this much. We live in a culture that prefers to believe the myth that hard workers will be successful – and people who need help are weak, or lazy, or just trying to get something for nothing. And if things have mostly gone well for us, we begin to think that we are self-sufficient and will always be able to rely on our own resources (internal and external) to handle whatever comes our way.
In my life, there have been enough examples to teach me otherwise. One Christmas when I was a teen, my father’s wallet – which contained the holiday bonus he had just cashed – was stolen at the dentist’s office. Imagine the feeling of that loss, with six children at home awaiting the usual hoopla. But the next day at work, the cash was magically (and anonymously) “returned”. Or years later, when my beloved brother-in-law entered an experimental cancer treatment program and my sister needed to stay in the hospital with him – in Houston, a city they didn’t know, with two young boys. Their friend, Angela, travelled from Ohio and cared for the boys in an apartment sponsored by a local church. The treatment took six months, and Angela stayed for the duration. Or when my good friends (who would prefer to remain nameless) loaned thousands of dollars to other friends to start their dream business – then turned around a couple of years later and did the same for a sibling. It wasn’t that they had extra cash just lying around. It was that they were willing to accept small hardships themselves in order to help people they loved build their dreams.
Still, with these examples (an many more), I somehow came away seeing only one side: when I am able to help others I should do so. And I’ve tried to keep that in mind in both big and small ways as I’ve lived my life. I completely missed, however, the flip side of that lesson: that there would be times of real need in my own life. And in those moments, I would have to both rely on others to care and to actually ask for help. In missing this side of the lesson, I grew to believe in my own myth – that I was a helper, not a needer. A giver, not a taker. An offerer, not an asker.
This winter is teaching me otherwise. I have needed emotional support, logistical help, financial assistance, rides, a welcoming place to spend Christmas – the list is long. Friends have given me cash (both anonymously and directly), paid for nights or lunches out, given up garage parking so my car wouldn’t die in the extended seriously negative temps. If I hold on to our cultural myths, this neediness will crush my self-esteem – a by-product those who have helped me would never want. Instead, I’m learning to let go of the myth, to develop a proper humility (i.e. “the quality or state of not thinking you are better than other people : the quality or state of being humble” per Mirriam Webster). And with that humility comes deep gratitude.
You see, in a village, the streets go both ways. The neighbor who offers help today is the neighbor in need of help tomorrow. There is a flow of energy back and forth. It does us no service to tell ourselves otherwise. I can’t say it has been an enjoyable lesson or shift in perspective. But I can say, even though I am still in the midst of it, that it has been necessary. Life is about growing, learning and evolving. Sometimes, moving forward is neither easy nor painless. Yet move forward we must if we value making the most of this precious life we’ve been given. In moving to a big city, I’ve discovered my citizenship in a village – a village of which I am proud, and grateful, to be part.