The Quick and the Deed

Walking to work one day not long ago, I had the opportunity to play the Good Samaritan. A man walking toward me on the sidewalk in the opposite direction was holding a plastic grocery bag full of papers and miscellany. I guess it contained one too many things, because the bag split and papers went pouring out onto the sidewalk. The morning spring breeze picked up and sent it all eddying and dancing down the sidewalk — torn-open envelopes and bills and other bits with handwriting on them.

The poor guy barked a PG-13 curse and immediately fell to his knees and threw his hands and feet in every direction, like a Twister champion, trying to stop the papers from getting away and missing several. They didn’t seem to be driven by the wind so much as by a desperate desire to get as far from him, in any direction, and as quickly as possible. One glided under a parked car.

As the bag spilled, three people breezed right past him, offering no help. I was approaching him anyway, so it was no big deal for me to stop and see what I could do.

At first I stopped simply because it would have been ridiculous and conspicuously uncharitable not to. I helped him not necessarily because I wanted to but to avoid shame, setting myself up in my head in opposition to the people who didn’t stop.

I was glad I did. He was embarrassed, the poor guy. He would not look up at my face. As if the papers scattering around us were bits of underwear or nude photographs. But he was also grateful. “Thank you. Thanks, sir. Thanks,” he said.

Our reactions to the situation were so different. He’d been taken by surprise, something of his life exposed briefly and rudely, his independence momentarily stripped away by forces outside of his control, whereas my simple interaction with him, which neither of us was looking for in particular, took me outside of my own head and put me in a position of power. I know it sounds idiotic, but I think I actually felt some dominance over him in that moment. It was brief and a little embarrassing, but it was power. I was doing the one thing he needed most right at that moment.

So I gathered up what I could. I knew we didn’t have all of it. Some papers I had just seen moments prior were gone when I turned around. Oh well. He looked up at me finally and smiled and said one last thank-you.

“No problem,” I said. He seemed to have everything under control, so I carried on along my way. I wondered what he would do about the missing pieces, but I felt wonderful for at least doing my best to help. Should I have told him he didn’t have all of it? Did he already know? Would I know if it were me?

In that moment, the paper that had gone under the parked car skidded out into view and made its way down the street away from the man. I ignored it and kept walking.

When you commit to a kind gesture, how far must you go? Did I negate my good deed because I didn’t chase that page down the street? My obligation was complete. What was my obligation? Hadn’t I done my best? No, I knew I hadn’t. It wasn’t quite the same thing as walking an old lady halfway across the street and then dashing off when the light changes, leaving her to contend with honking horns and whizzing bicyclists. But it occurred to me that I hadn’t really helped him at all. Those people who had walked past him were rude, but at least they were honest. And, in opposition to them, I was certainly no better.


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the untallied hours

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