Helping strangers

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I do feel lucky to have been born into a stable, loving family. I was able to receive a strong education. I have never gone hungry. I have always had warm clothes. My leisure time is spent in leisure, not survival.

Additionally, as I have gone through life, I have developed strong spiritual beliefs. I believe that all of life is connected, that what happens to me, in some way, affects living beings all over the planet – the butterfly effect, as it were. I believe that what I think matters to others in subtle, unseen ways. I believe that what I say matters. I believe that what I do matters.

I believe that a spiritual world exists all around us, though largely unseen by our physical eyes. I believe that spiritual beings are helping us all the time. Additionally, I am open to the idea that some spiritual forces may oppose our choices or actions.

I try, above all, to be open-minded.

Are these the reasons I am compelled to help strangers who are obviously in need? All of my mainstream teaching from parents, to teachers, to adult friends has been consistent: “Do not talk to strangers.” “Never let a stranger into your car.” “Never stop to help someone on the road. People are dangerous. There are a lot of crazy people out there.”

And yet…and yet…when I am in the moment, driving by a woman struggling under the weight of too many grocery bags, seeing a man, alone, walking a cold stretch of road with his shoulders bowed, seeing a woman, beaten by the sun, lying on the sidewalk covered with ants — in these moments all I can feel is the truth that these people are struggling, and I have to stop to check on them. Sometimes, rarely, someone has not felt safe to me, and I cannot help that person. Typically, though, they give off the energy of someone who has been a bit broken on that given day, week, month or year, and I know that it might make a difference if I can find a way to help. So I try.

Just last night I was on my way to a late evening tennis match. As I rounded the corner in my neighborhood, a young-looking thin man walked right through the glare of my headlights, hands shoved into his pockets, no coat on this freezing winter night. He was walking towards a dead-end, going nowhere fast. How could I ignore him?

“Hello,” I said, cracking the passenger window. He stepped closer to the car.
“Are you okay?” I continued. “Do you need a ride or something?”

“Yeah, yeah,” he replied, grabbing the door handle which was, fortunately, locked. He took a step back when he couldn’t get in the car. “I just gotta get downtown,” he said.

I was in a quandary. I couldn’t let a strange man into my car – I have my boundaries! But neither could I leave him freezing cold, obviously lost (downtown was nowhere near), walking to nowhere with no coat.

“I can’t give you a ride because I’m alone and I don’t know if it’s safe. I’m sorry. Also, I’m not going downtown. I’m going the other direction.”

“Well, just get me closer. I would appreciate it if you would just get me closer.”

I told him to wait, and I turned around to drive back to my house, to confer with my partner. She was uncomfortable, of course, with me giving him a ride – she was also uncomfortable with both of us giving him a ride. It’s just not safe. We planned to call a cab for him. To pay for the cab if need be. So I drove back and told him I’d call him a cab. I called more than one cab company, one kept putting me on hold, the other wouldn’t answer. Finally the one on hold came back saying they had no cabs. All of this time he is shivering in the cold, hands in his pockets, red sweatshirt hanging loosely over his thin torso.

Finally, I was so late for my tennis game and so frustrated with the impossibility of the situation, I felt that I would go with my intuition – that he was safe enough, though a little lost. My partner had pulled her car around behind mine, so I told her I was going to drive him to the bus stop and for her to follow us. I did, and she did. He was grateful. He said he was from Liberia, that he understood that it wasn’t safe to pick up a strange man, that I could trust him, that he was a good man. He had been a refugee in the Liberian civil wars and moved to a refugee camp in Ghana for years. From there a US refugee program helped him move to America. And now he lives here.

Why was he walking through our neighborhood alone on this winter’s night? His cousin had dropped him off because he didn’t want to go where his cousin was going. The story was confusing.

I took him to the bus stop, gave him a blanket that I had in the car, and gave him some money. There was no bus schedule, but there were gas stations and fast food places around – I knew he could make it somewhere safe from this location.

And so, on a cold winter’s night, a strange connection, and a confusing struggle between fear-based decisions and compassion. Would it have been wiser to drive on by? Perhaps, but something in me feels that every time I drive by someone who is struggling, I let coldness, entropy, distrust, and hatred gain just a bit in this world. It feels like my personal battle against the disconnection that causes, on a large scale, mass violence. I have many other stories of giving someone a ride at night – each time with the same anxiety producing debate within me – each time, so far, with the same positive result of connecting with another human being – each time thinking maybe this should be the last time. But the heart, it pulls.

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