One of many beautiful trees at Allied Arts Guild in Menlo Park
While driving home from an errand last week, I saw an unusual sight by the sidewalk. A heavily tanned man, wearing navy shorts, a thin tattered tank top, and no footwear, was standing on top of an overturned shopping cart under a medium-sized tree. With bare hands, he held onto a branch with leaves bunched into his fists.
It was an unsettling sight. My first thought was that he was trying to injure himself. I looked for a rope or something of that sort above him. Nothing.
Yes, I know. I tend to think catastrophically.
Another fleeting thought: maybe he was looking for something in the tree and he couldn’t safely get down. He did look precarious standing on the shopping cart. Did he need someone to help him get down?
People who noticed him stared: driver, pedestrians, me. I could imagine these people asking themselves the same question I had, “What the heck is going on with his guy?”
From what I observed waiting at that stoplight, no one offered help. Within that short amount of time, I got critical of the lack of empathy around me. I thought that if my kids were with me I would stop to help; it would reinforce a hands-on lesson of helping others. If I see something like this again next time, I’ll stop. That was my rationalization for ignoring what I saw.
Then it hit me! I was being a hypocrite. How can I expect others to do something that I wouldn’t do myself? How can I expect a rerun of this situation next time? That man will move on to another place. Also, I would hesitate to stop if the kids were with me; they would freak out in the backseat and cry just like the time someone tried to jump-start her car with my battery. No one knew how to open my car hood, so after lots of sounds and people stopping by to help, I heard the kids wailing.
Although I was reluctant to do so, I made a U-turn to ask him if he needed help. I was scared, so I stood right next to the opened car door. When I asked him if he needed help, he didn’t look out from the leaves. Instead, he gave me a thumbs up sign and waved.
Next I asked him if he needed anything. He made a money sign with his hand: the okay sign with thumb and index finger making a circle shape. Digging through my purse I found a few dollars. I put it in his hand that wasn’t holding onto the branch.
Overall, it wasn’t a memorable or life-changing encounter. But I realized something I already knew about myself: I don’t like to deal with life interruptions, even small ones.
There is another side of me that believes detours, surprises, and interruptions make life an adventure. That’s the hopelessly optimistic side of me talking. But the reality is that interruptions to any day, schedule, plans, and life are all inconvenient and sometimes a real pain in the butt.
A few weeks back I was that annoying person who interrupted a stranger’s life at a hospital cafeteria. I was on day 4 or 5 of Ellis’ hospital stay, and I was starting to show signs of wear and tear. Even though I put on clean clothes and makeup, there was no way of hiding the gloom and doom on my face.
During the busy lunch hour. I rushed down to the crowded hospital cafeteria to fill up my coffee cup with extra ice. It was the last thing I needed to do before driving home to rest until I switched shifts with Chris in the evening. In one hand, I carried a plastic comforter bag with laundry. On the other, I held my cup of coffee and a purse hanging from my shoulder.
With fresh ice in my cup, I turned around to leave. In that split second, the side of my plastic blanket bag knocked over a bowl of clam chowder soup on a stranger. He had just poured some soup into the bowl and hadn’t yet secured the contents with a lid.
He was an Asian man probably in his early 30s. He was wearing a nicely pressed red and white plaid shirt, navy pants, and brown leather shoes. Not anymore though. From waist down, he was dripping clam chowder soup.
I interrupted his day big time. I don’t know what he was doing at the hospital: maybe he was one of the staff at the hospital; maybe he was visiting someone; maybe he was a parent. I will never know. But I will remember him as the Soup Guy.
His response to my clumsiness blew me away. While wiping the soup off his clothes, he consoled me and told me not to worry; he was ok. It was an unexpected response. This encounter sparked a flood of emotions in me: feeling sorry for almost burning him with soup, anxious about Ellis’ recovery, worried about the impact of this disruption in Elliot’s life, Chris and his well-being in the midst of chaos, mother in law’s health as she held down the fort for us, and feeling burnt out. I broke out into tears catching the stares of people standing by the salad bar.
I interrupted his life that day big time. But he was gracious about it. If he had responded otherwise, it would’ve deepened my guilt and made my experience that much more stressful. Maybe he realized I was one of the many frantic and worried parents in the hospital.
What a lesson I learned in how a stranger’s reaction to an interruption I caused can be handled with immense kindness and understanding. I wanted to adopt that attitude too. I can’t count how many times people have showered me with kindness and love when I least expected it or when I needed it most.
It’s humbling, inspiring, encouraging, and life-giving.