Saturday, March 21, 2009

Random Thoughts about Random Acts of Kindness

I remember several years back when Oprah had a big deal on her show about doing random acts of kindness for people. She devoted a few episodes to talking with people who had tried the experiment and how it made them feel. Someone paid the toll for four cars behind them in line at the toll booth. Others carried groceries and performed acts of service. Each person interviewed said they felt uplifted and inspired to continue to find ways to help those around them each day.

At the same time, we often hear news stories about people who were attacked by persons who approached them, offering to help. Television shows portray women who are assaulted by men who volunteer to carry their groceries or help them change a flat tire. I recall another talk show (although which one escapes me) which specifically talked about the dangers of allowing strangers to help you or to get too close to you in any way. The experts on this panel mentioned that if someone seems to be overly helpful, they are most likely a predator seeking your confidence.

So how on earth are we supposed to reconcile these two things?

Sure, I'll offer help ... but I won't be surprised if the person I'm talking to pulls out a stun gun and warns me to stay away?

The other night, I was at Walmart, walking out to my car with a cart of groceries. It was probably ten-thirty at night, not terribly late, but fully dark. I had taken the precaution of parking under a light, as I always do. As I reached my car and prepared to open the trunk, a young man approached me. He was probably in his early twenties, looked fairly well-dressed, and was very friendly.

"Can I help you with that?" he asked.

Immediately the two factions began warring inside me. One part of me said, "Oh, how nice! This young man, who is probably a student at the nearby college, is taking time out of his busy night to offer to help me with my task."

The other voice in my head screamed, "Predator! Run! Flee! Scream! Get away or you'll never be heard from again until they drag the river for you!"

I spoke from instinct. "I'm good, but thanks for the offer."

"Are you sure?" he questioned.

"I'm sure. But thanks."

As he walked away, I just had to laugh. We live in a world where service is becoming rare, where human beings aren't reaching out to each other the way we should. And those who do try? They're labeled as serial killers.

Can we stay safe and still let others into our circle? How do we let others serve us without making ourselves vulnerable?

We've all heard the adage, "Better safe than sorry." I have no proof that the young man in question was just trying to be helpful, and I also have no proof that he's this generation's Ted Bundy. It would be nice if we had a clearer way to determine other's motives and intentions. In the meantime, I think we have to do the best we can. Trust our instincts and listen when we feel we should be cautious. Continue to reach out to those around us when we feel it's appropriate. And as far as trusting young men in parking lots? I'll probably still continue to send them away. Especially if it's dark. Call it paranoia. It probably is.


susette said...

I'm coming over from Mormon Mommy Blogs, asking for your help. I am in the running for a round trip airfare paid ticket to Connecticut, to meet a friend I became acquainted with through blogging. She is a super fun person and is holding this contest. I entered a funny story titled "Grapejuice Floaties, Now Marry Me." The person whose story receives the most votes will win a trip to meet this generous lady, whom I'm hoping to meet. The voting ends Sunday evening. I am ahead for now but there is a story coming up from behind out of nowhere and I would so, so, appreciate your help. Her blog is and the voting is on the sidebar on the right. "Grapejuice, Floaties" Just go there and cast a vote for me, please. Thanks so much-you're awesome! ♥♥

Cindy Beck said...

Nope, it's not paranoia. It's called good sense, to be wary of a man in a dark parking lot.

But it is a shame that we have to be wary of each other, isn't it?

Davis L. Bigelow said...

Tristi, you raise what I see as a modernly significant issue, but some of the dilemma is also timeless. In my own experience, I have seen people who seemed to need assistance, yet often, I don't go to their aid because the overall circumstances would probably make my actions more detrimental than helpful. I recall a time when I was driving along a road in a snow storm witnessing fierce wind and very cold temperatures insulting some suffering lady who was bravely struggling against them to get somewhere that was obviously important to her - yet I was by myself. As a married man, it felt inappropriate for me to offer the woman a ride, and even if I had, she would probably have declined because she didn't know me - or my motives. I felt bad that I just drove past in my warm vehicle while her red, chilled and wind-burned face went unprotected. What else could I do? It's a bit ironic, but if I had seen that same woman collapse in the snow, I would have immediately stopped and helped her. Apparently I'm willing to make exceptions to my norms when death threatens. The rest of the time, it seems that I'm not quite sure what to do. I think we should help each other, but I also advise caution. We need to consider how the other person will receive our help. Sadly, there will be times when 'helping' will mean that we don't do anything at all.

Anna said...

I feel the same way about this. I guess the compromise we can make is to do little acts of kindness.

For instance, instead of asking someone if they want help with their groceries and going to their car... you could notice if someone is done with their cart and offer to take it back to the store.

As a woman, if I or you run out of gas in my car and don't have a cell, I'm not going to accept a ride with some stranger. But it would be kind of that stranger to lend a cell phone, or go pick up some gas for me. And vice versa.. I'll help out in some ways, but I won't invite a stranger to get into my car.

Gotta find ways to help others without making them have to worry about your motives. There are lots of little things we can do though.

Ali Cross said...

This is a terrible sad fact about today's society.

Recently the boys and I were at the Gateway and ran across an old gentleman pan handling for change. We struck up a conversation with him and really enjoyed meeting him.

As we left, the boys asked about why we just gave him money instead when we could give him work instead that would feed him for many days.

A very good question, don't you think?

But the truth is, since the Smart family's experience, there's no way we can invite strangers to our home--to see where we live, to get to know our children. It would simply be too great a risk.

So we have to satisfy ourselves with serving in small less personal ways that don't put ourselves at risk.

The thing is, how much do we lose as a result? We risk not getting to know people who've been put in our way. We risk not serving when it's been given to us to do so. We risk not ever seeing the world beyond of our own limited view.

It's a darn shame.

Kimberly said...

Goodness. I struggle with this one too. I've actually offered help and had it rejected with that slightly fearful look, and I'm not exactly scary looking.

Very thought-provoking post!

Erin said...

I am with you on this! We don't know what people's intentions are. I wish we could trust more openly, but history has kind of made us wary, hasn't it?

BTW, I love the picture in your header! What a cool library!

LexiconLuvr said...

My father is one of the most gentlemanly men I've ever known. He told me once that he hates the way society has deteriorated because he feels like he can't ever tell a person they look nice anymore without it being considered some sort of harassment or innuendo. When my father said that, I decided then and there I couldn't live that way. I have a personal policy: If I think a kind/nice thought about someone, I must share it. God didn't inspire those things in my heart and want them to stay hidden. It might be that one nice word that stays a hand.

But as for accepting the help of a stranger in the dark, I'm totally behind you on that one. It's a sad but necessary precaution. I'll just agree with the other commenters and say that we must find other ways to be of service without endangering ourselves or others. I guess all we can do is trust that God understands our heart and knows our intentions.

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. Have a great day!

Danyelle Ferguson said...

Good call, Tristi. I'm not against help in broad daylight where other people are getting in and out of cars around me. But in the dark night without anyone else around, I would have said the exact same thing.

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