When Helping Hurts

February 7, 2020

I was at a gas station after church. I was filling up my tank, and then walked toward the station to get a cup of coffee. As I walked from my car to the station, I saw a woman near the door sitting on the street. By all appearances, she was very poor—at best—and homeless, at worst. Her hair was matted, her clothes were dirty, and her demeanor made the possibility of drug use apparent.

I felt a great deal of sympathy for her. I didn’t know her story of background—I wasn’t judging her at all. “There but for the grace of God go I,” I thought to myself. As much as I believe in the power of human beings to make choices, and as much as I affirm the necessity of consequences, I also have a deep sense of empathy and solidarity with those who are struggling. All of us struggle, and oftentimes, very few, if anyone, knows the backstory.

So I asked her, “Could I get you some food?” She got up, and simply said “Yea.”

We walked into the gas station, and I said, pointing to the food aisle, get whatever you want. I made a very subtle suggestion about trying to get some of the healthier stuff (pointing to the granola and protein bars, etc.). “I’m going to get a cup of coffee, so just get whatever you’d like, and I’ll pay for it when I pay for my coffee.”

I got my coffee, and all of a sudden, I heard a slight uproar from the cashier. He raised his voice and his hands, clearly trying to get my attention. “Were you getting this for her?” I asked what he was referring to. “This lottery ticket,” he said. Turned out that my new acquaintance, while she had picked out some food, was also trying to get a lottery ticket out of me as well—and not one of the cheap ones, but a $20 one!

Internally, I was blown away. But I didn’t show it—as annoyed as I was by what this woman tried to pull on me, I still felt a need to respect her dignity. I told her, “No, no, that’s not okay. But if you want one of the cheap ones, that’s fine.” So she surrendered the $20 lottery ticket, and went for one of the $1 ones. She got more out of me than I offered, but much less than she tried to extort.

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