I was in the West 4th street subway station a couple of years ago, when I saw a blind man walking towards the stairs that lead to the lower level trains. Thinking I was being helpful I said I said to him “Heading down the stairs?” While well-intentioned, it didn’t necessarily make the most sense. Because if a blind person is at the top of a flight of stairs, whether they know it or not, they are about to go down those stairs.
A more appropriate offering would have been to ask if they needed assistance with the stairs. And if they said “What stairs?” well, then I could have offered my assistance.
The intention behind my question is always there. As I find myself generally aware of what is happening around me, sometimes to the point of being able to focus on anything else, I keep hearing in my head, “Should I say something? Should I offer my assistance? Can I be of assistance?”
There is ego involved in it, of course. The desire to be seen as helpful or knowledgeable, rather than a true sense of altruism. But the desire to help is there and it’s a muscle that I don’t feel like I use as much in Phoenix as I did in New York. I get in my car first thing in the morning. I drive to work. I sit at my desk all day. Maybe I step outside for lunch. I drive home.
There is less walking. Less happenstance. I feel less like an atom bouncing around and into other atoms, and more like I am on a specific track with the same beginning, end, and stops throughout the day. I go from my bed to my car, to my desk, back to my car, to my couch, and eventually to my bed.
The overall lack of human connection can be sad.
I might try too hard to be of assistance. My colleague half-jokingly accused me of “Mansplaining” something to her the other day. It made me extremely reticent to offer my thoughts on anything. Perhaps I was “mansplaining” and was telling myself that I was trying to be helpful when it wasn’t warranted.
I think perhaps while my intentions are good, there are some times when it is better to be asked, and some people who would rather ask than be offered to.
I’ve never been particularly good at being patient.
The last time I was in New York I was on the train when a pair of middle-aged tourists asked an older woman a couple of seats down from me where the train stopped. I knew the answer. It was an easy one. A softball. But it caught the older woman off guard. I know how she felt. That happens in the city. You operate on autopilot such that you might not even realize what train you are on, or where you are relative to where you are going. You just instinctively know you are on the right train, headed in the right direction.
As the older woman got her bearings I told myself to keep my mouth shut. Nobody asked my opinion. There was no need to speak up. If the older woman didn’t know the answer somebody else would speak up. But the older woman couldn’t figure it out, and nobody else said anything.
I leaned over and in my kindest voice, I told them what they needed to know. The tourists thanked me, as did the older woman who explained she couldn’t remember because she hadn’t been on this train in a while.
I knew that feeling. Of a tourist in the city asking me a question and then stuttering and stumbling because I didn’t know the answer right away. It’s like beat the clock except all you win is your pride if you answer but if you don’t, your loss is a crippling embarrassment.
It felt like a loss of credentials like I was losing some NYC points.
When I lived in the city I used to regularly offer my help to baffled tourists I passed staring at a map on a corner. Less than half the time they would take me up on it. About 20 percent of the time they thought I was about to scam them and would respond, “We’re fine thank you!”
And I would walk on.
It’s not hard to be helpful exactly but I think we are all a bit more hesitant to ask for help these days, a little more skeptical of those who offer their assistance. So many answers can be found on our phones that we can feel vulnerable asking somebody else for help. Like maybe we are incompetent or stupid. Things nobody wants to feel.
I was in the grocery store last week when an older lady asked me if I could get some chocolate cake mix for her off the top shelf. “Actually, can you get me two?” she asked. “How about three?” I said. “While I’m up here you might as well replenish your supply.” She laughed and agreed to my upsell. She thanked me and I joked with her about finally feeling like I was good for something.
The whole interaction was ten seconds but it made me smile, like coming up for a quick breath of air before ducking under the surface to swim on for god knows how long before breathing again.
Though the opportunities might be fewer and their actual significance nominal, I’ll keep my eyes open. Keep offering help when I can, asking for help when I need it. Knowing it’s not so much about the help offered or received, but the desire to connect.
Something of infinite value.
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