I hate to admit it, but I told a few lies to myself this weekend. Not an accidental lie to myself, such as when I proclaim, "I'm going for a run today," but then somehow let the morning get away without lacing up my shoes. I don't usually feel badly about those untruths (okay, maybe just a little) but this weekend's falsities kept me up at night. What horrible lies had I told? I told myself that I couldn't really help someone, when in truth I was making a conscious effort not to. At the moment of the incident, I did not think to myself, "This person could use my assistance but I'm just not going to give it." No, my thought process was much more subtle than that. On Sunday, at the check stand of the grocery store, I saw that I had the opportunity to help out the person ahead of me, but instead I talked myself out of a response with three little lies.
1. It's not really my problem. The woman in front of me at the store had both her debit card and credit card declined. The cashier fidgeted as he waited with an open cash drawer, the bagger let out an exasperated sigh, and the long line of customers behind me groaned. Standing right next to her, I could feel embarrassment and humiliation radiating from the woman with the cart of groceries loaded up and insufficient funds to pay for them. Oh, how awful for her, I thought to myself. But I didn't say anything. Instead I offered a sympathetic smile as she rummaged through her purse. For a brief second a voice inside my head said, Pay for the groceries! But I quickly countered with, Why is this my problem? I stay within my budget, I keep track of what I spend- why can't she? If she had paid closer attention to her balances she wouldn't be in this tough spot. How is this my fault? Once I told myself that it wasn't my problem, the other lies came more easily.
2. I can't afford to help. The woman dug into her bag and pulled out an envelop with money which she counted. Her teenage daughter also dug into the purse she was carrying and emptied out the cash. Both women were handing over crumpled bills and sorting out change on the counter. My cheeks began to burn. I had memories of my college self, buying packages of ramen noodles literally with nickles and dimes because it was all I had. Once again, that voice inside told me, Pay for the groceries! The voice was even louder and I really started to feel that it was my duty to help out this down-on-her-luck mom. I've had hard times too, I'm a mother as well, couldn't this be me? But then I look at the total on the register screen. With a week left to go in September and those teacher paychecks not due until early October, I tell myself, I can't afford to help. I convince myself that although I'd really like to, I just can't do it. I then think of the bit of money I have in my purse and tell myself one final lie.
3. My efforts will be too small to matter. Since I had made a cash purchase earlier in the day, I knew exactly how much currency I had in my possession- a mere $4.65. As the counting of change on the counter continued, I considered handing my money to the cashier and telling him to apply it to the woman's bill. But then I thought about the total on the register. $4.65 wasn't exactly going to wipe it out. The voice in my head pleaded, Just do it! But I silenced the voice by reminding myself that the woman did not ask for my help, that I might embarrass her by offering her "charity" and that in the end, the amount of money I had to give was so small, it wasn't really going to make a difference. I had no idea how far away from the total the woman was at this point, but was certain that four dollars and change wouldn't settle the bill. My inaction was complete. Yes, I felt like I should do something, but in the end I didn't. I surrendered all my power to give assistance and reassured myself that I would help if only I could. Instead of helping, I just leaned on my cart and waited for the moment to pass. And pass it did, as the annoyed cashier simply waved the woman through once she'd given him every last cent in her possession and he pushed a few buttons to make the outstanding balance of a few dollars "disappear" without removing any items in her cart. The woman thanked him profusely and rushed out the door with her daughter.
So it's true, the moment passed. But my inner dialogue about it lingered. As I had my purchases rung up, I tried to convince myself that I had taken the only "real" course of action given my sorry cash reserves. I felt guilty for not contributing my $4.65, but I responded to that by asking, What difference would it have made? I couldn't have paid the bill. But then I remembered the lessons I have tried to impart on my students for years about the power of upstanding. So often they get overwhelmed by a world full of injustices and I've always told them, "Don't focus on all the things you can't do, dedicate your efforts to the things you CAN change!" The thought of my own words filled me with remorse. I had done exactly that. So fixated on the reality of "I can't pay this woman's bill, " I neglected to do what little I could and failed to recognize the power those actions could have had. Maybe if I had handed over my small amount of cash, the woman wouldn't have felt so alone, judged, and friendless. Maybe if I handed over my small amount of cash, other people in line would have done the same and we could have paid off the balance with our collective efforts. Maybe if I had handed over my small amount of cash, I wouldn't have felt like I let myself down for ceding my power to act with three sorry lies.
The thoughtful, reflective process Stephanie articulated is one we can learn from in honest narratives by individuals at different points in history. See, for example:
- Jesus Colon considers helping another in 1950s America in "Little Things are Big"
- A worker considers whether or not to take a loyalty oath in 1930s Germany in "Do You Take the Oath?"
- Eve Shalen, an eighth grader, reflects on her treatment of a classmate in relation to her desire to belong in "The 'In' Group"