Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Cost of Kindness

This morning I woke up, read some more of Stephen King's "Full Dark, No Stars" and then went out for some errands. I've been in need of sundry bits and a couple of nice shirts that would be appropriate for more-than-casual appointments or potential interviews. After knocking out a couple of stops, I went to grab a sandwich for lunch from the nearby Subway.

As part of my own sort of self-therapy (and because I'd had a good morning of reading and thinking about my own writing), I tried to smile at strangers, to make at-least-polite eye-contact, and to just be as pleasant as humanly possible. The idea being that not only would this help me feel more comfortable, but it might actually improve someone else's day. This, unfortunately, has a pretty messy price. It leaves me feeling a little spent - it really is an effort to not simply shut down to all the strangers milling about in a store. But it also seems to create in others an expectation of who I am, of what I am to them.

It says something when I explain that I know when someone is about to ask me for money. As I came out of the shop with my sandwich, I made brief eye contact with a slight smile and then went for my car. I wasn't worried that this person was going to do anything harmful to me, but I could see the shift in his body language and he altered his path to intercept mine. I was closer to my car however and had determined that I just wanted to leave. I was pulling out of my parking space when he entered my field of view again, this time in front of my car. I had no choice but to stop.

Of course, he approached and told me his story. This one was simple. He was 50 cents short for bus fare, if I had some change or could help him out, he'd be very appreciative. I didn't have any cash. I looked in my change tray. I had two brand new pennies that weren't superglued (by goodness knows what) to my console, so I was apologetic and offered them to him. He said something I couldn't quite understand and I said, "I'm sorry?"

At this point, he wasn't aggressive and I am not sure he was actually talking to me anymore.  He'd completely dismissed me now that he'd gotten the change I had and there was no further use for me. I didn't even get to wish him luck or give him a "God bless you" which is the standard exchange I'm used to with strangers who approach me for money in parking lots. But I could tell he's annoyed.

Did I want to avoid him? Yes. Did I want to leave as quickly as possible? Yes. Did I want to do it because I thought anything negative about him? Not particularly. It had everything to do with me being a means to an end, with knowing I would be wedged into a situation where MORE kindness would be asked/required from me than I could give at that time. And my deepseated dislike of disappointing people. It also happens frequently enough that I've learned to recognize that it's going to happen - this means it happens a lot.

I find myself with very real justifications for the patterns of social behavior I'm trying to correct. Situations like this feed my anxiety and encourage me to close up and pretend other people don't exist.

"Kindness doesn't cost a thing." 

For those who struggle with anxiety, this is so far from true. Kindness given by an unwanted or unwelcome encounter feels essentially forced. It doesn't reciprocate, it doesn't feel good at all.

On top of that, every person that approaches me for monetary help brings back with them every person I've met in that way. The homeless man I spent 15 minutes talking to one day about a surgery and the infection on his leg, the parolee whose family wouldn't take him in, the man who ran out of gas, the woman with three kids leaving an abusive husband, another parolee trying to keep himself in school, and a few others whose stories blend together. Sure, some of them could've been - probably were - cons. I knew that the moment they engaged me, and I decided that there was no way for me to know and that I would give them all the benefit of the doubt.

With all these stories though comes the emotional battery that some of us experience when taking on the burden of another person's tragic story. If I am to have faith in these people, I have to believe their stories. If I believe their stories, I cannot help but empathize, or at least sympathize, with every one of them. Their stories become my stories and that is what guides me to help them - tempered with keeping my own well being and means in mind.

Today I could only give the man 2 cents from my console and he did give a quick thanks, but then he was done with me. Obviously, I'm still carrying some of him. I hope he got the change he needed to get the bus he needed and that he got where he needed to go. I hope all of them did.

I don't remember where I was going with this other than to say that we bandy about the idea that kindness doesn't cost a thing, but it does for those of us who really consider what it means to treat others the way we would want to be treated. How do we know how we'd like to be treated unless we can slip on the other person's shoes to consider how we might like to be treated in their place?