One workday morning, I pulled my car into the local gas station to fill up.
The sun had peeked out, the traffic was flowing, and it felt like a typical start to my Tuesday. Happily, I had managed to shower, curl my hair, and escape the house without any remnants of my child’s breakfast yogurt dotted on my skirt.
Most days, I don’t realize he decorated me until I reach the office.
I park the car and get out to begin the mundane task of pumping gas. As I pulled the handle from the lever, I noticed a man in a rough SUV pull into the lot. He parked kitty-corner behind my car. It felt aggressive.
One too many episodes of “Dateline” had taught me, as a (somewhat) young and alone woman in today’s culture, to immediately be weary of random guys. Sometimes we women feel like prey. The way men look at us for a moment too long sends alert signals to our brains to be on guard—do not trust their motives.
The man got out of the front seat, saw me, stopped a moment to think, and then got back into his car to pull up alongside the pump I was using.
“Here we go,” I thought. I quickly surveyed the area. There were plenty of witnesses, cameras, and daylight surrounding me. He couldn’t be too crazy. I began building my protective “I won’t be a victim” fence, digging holes for the posting as quickly as possible.
He walked up to me hastily. Nervous. Unkempt. He spoke quickly, understanding most people are too busy going nowhere to talk. Grandma used to tell me that.
“Excuse me, I’m so sorry to bother you. See, I left my wallet at home, and my gas tank is empty. I left my wallet at home…”
Ah, the discomfort of moments of moral grappling, when a random person asks us to lend a hand. Our brains battle with themselves, don’t they?
Help the poor guy out.
Nah, I don’t feel like being a sucker today.
Show God’s love.
Don’t be stupid.
I listened. Felt myself transition from prey to investigator. He wanted money—for what, I’m not sure. Past experiences and caution from others told me it may be for cigarettes or a shady deal he needed to make. The “I won’t be a victim” fence had been completed, and I felt myself still wanting to purchase structural insurance. How could I ensure that by giving this man money my fence would still be standing? I wanted insurance against deceit and trickery from this human brother of mine.
And then he said this: “I have my 18 month old in the backseat. We are on our way to daycare, and I’m worried I’m going to run out of gas. I can give you my business card, you’ll have a way to get a hold of me…”
He was so nervous and hopeful and scared. Probably mostly of the mother of the child who would undoubtedly punish him beyond eternity if she learned he was stranded on the side of the road with their baby. He rushed back to his car to search for a business card.
Surely, as he stated, I saw a little boy sitting quietly in his car seat, watching us. He had short brown hair and eyes that were asking if the world would be forgiving that day.
Feeling like a terrible person, I banged my head against my imaginary fence. Building a gate through it, I finally reached for the latch to walk to the other side. I fished into my wallet for cash and handed it to the desperate man. He expressed his appreciation profusely.
Internally, I was angry at myself. Angry that past experiences resulted in the hardening of hearts, as opposed to an outpouring of love. I was reminded of simple concept: Hurt people hurt people. If we have been burned before in a similar situation, we learn to say “no” to it in the future. This perpetuates intolerance, fear, and negativity.
Next, he asks me for a favor: “Will you please hang out for a minute while I go pay the attendant? He’ll be good.”
There I stood, leaning against my car and monitoring a stranger’s child through the window. He turned and made eye contact with me. We smiled, and he waved first. This little boy, who knew no skill of swindling, reached out. As if he knew I just helped him and his daddy. As if he was teaching me a delicate lesson: When we feel vulnerable, we must respond with love and transparency.
I realized that I don’t care if the man did or did not deceive me. I could make no judgement whether he was a good parent. My only job was to walk through the gate of the defensive fence we all build and recognize what I was called to be in that moment: a humbled helper. A servant of my fellow mankind.
Although I realize the chances of this impressionable little boy remembering this event are slim to none, I also recognize the vast importance of imprinting compassion on our younger generation.
The man returned, thanking me again for the help. Nothing more. I got back into my car and drove off to work. There were mixed emotions of warmth and guilt. I vowed to do better with strangers with beat-up rigs, and I hoped the pair made it to school before snack time.
Author: Bethany Bell
Image: DC Atty/Flickr
Editor: Danielle Beutell