The ancient Greeks believed that their gods whiled away the hours by watching the lives of mere mortals on earth. And occasionally, just on a whim, a particular deity would travel down from Mount Olympus and knock on the door of some poor unsuspecting human. The idea was to pose a challenge. How would the stranger be received? Would the visitor meet with kindness and hospitality or distain and disregard? Often, consequences or rewards rested in the outcome, which made folks pay close attention, as they listened to shared stories of meetings with celestial beings. Of course, these myths were designed to teach compassion for one’s fellow man. And I sometimes wonder if we, too, are given similar tests. I thought of this a few months ago when I had an interesting encounter of my own.
I was pushing a cart around a store, lost in my own thoughts when a woman approached me. She seemed nervous, as she introduced herself, and began telling me of her troubles. Her father had recently died of cancer and because she was his caretaker, his death had left her homeless. She had been staying in a cheap hotel, she said, and unless she paid the bill for the last few nights, she would be on the streets again. I waited for her to ask me for money, but she didn’t. Instead, she went on to tell me that she was a nurse’s aide, looking for work. When she was finished, she looked at me and simply asked if I would pray for her.
I might have been taken aback, had I not previously experienced equally bizarre encounters with people in public places. Illness has heightened my sensitivity, I guess, making me more approachable, and for some inexplicable reason, my shopping trips often take a strange detour. I’ve learned not to question such moments.
“Of course, I will,” I said, thinking that prayer was certainly free. And then, I wished her good luck.
There was an awkward period of silence between us, and in the calm, the voice came to me loud and clear. It was actually more of a directive than a request. “Ask her the amount of the hotel bill.” I thought it was my imagination, so I waited for it to be repeated just for good measure, and then turned to her with the question.
“A hundred dollars,” she said, tears in her eyes.
Now, I rarely carry money with me, except for a couple of dollar bills. Let’s face it: we live in a credit card society. But I knew that I had a hundred dollar bill tucked away in my wallet for emergencies. The irony that it was exactly what she needed wasn’t lost on me. I hesitated. It isn’t always easy to give so freely, without question or pause. And I think it is human nature to want to hold onto what is ours. My mind reeled with the possibility that this woman was conning me, that perhaps she wanted money for drugs or alcohol. I searched her face for reassurance of her sincerity.
“Whatever is done for the least,” kept reverberating in my brain. I thought of how blessed I am in so many ways. And I wondered how I might feel if I were in the same desperate situation. I had a moment of clarity. This woman needed the money far more than I did. I gave it to her.
She began to weep, thanking me for the help. But moments later, as she walked away, I realized that it was I who was indebted. You see, when we give, we receive. If we can be generous and kind, if we can recognize the many ways in which we have been favored and respond in gratitude, then, much like a boomerang, that comes back to us, returned tenfold. It is the simplest of lessons. And while I am not suggesting that we become a benefactor to every stranger we meet, I do think that sometimes those opportunities present themselves, and there are rewards for paying attention to them. A kind word or a sincere smile costs nothing, but provides so much.
I am reminded of how plants and animals coexist. A plant doesn’t withhold oxygen until it receives the carbon dioxide necessary for life. It simply shares what it has, confident that what it needs will be returned. I wonder what the world might be like if we thought more in terms of generosity of our time and talent and care? The gifts of the spirit are meant to be shared, aren’t they?
As for me, much like the ancient Greeks, I think that perhaps I had a moment with the Divine, a sacred reminder of what it truly means to be human. It certainly felt like one.