You see them the minute you get out of your car. The bell ringer. The Girl Scout. The political activist. They stand between you and the door to the grocery store. There is no side entrance and no way to pole vault over them. You're stuck.
So, you probably do what I do. You tuck your head, avoid eye contact, and start murmuring, "No, thank you. No, thank you. No thank you."
If we look interested, they'll descend on us like buzzards. Then, they'll make us feel guilty for not contributing. And besides, there are too many people asking for our time and money anyway. We have more important things to do. Right?
For me, this is an example of a blind spot that keeps me from truly experiencing the people and the world around me.
Last Saturday, I participated in a service project for my Rotary Club. Twice each year, we hand out fliers in front of a local grocery store that lists items needed by residents at the homeless shelter nearby. The list includes personal items such as toothpaste, diapers, and socks. We give the list to shoppers as they enter the store in hopes that they will buy something that we will later deliver to the shelter.
It's a great project on two levels. First, it's simple. Second, people can participate for very little cost.
But, that's not necessarily how the shoppers see us.
Some love it. They enthusiastically take the paper, buy several items, and proudly deliver them to us as they exit the store.
Some are neutral. They politely take the paper but deposit it somewhere in the bakery section shortly after entering the store.
But the majority are not even slightly interested. They are so good at not making eye contact, many of them walk into the exit door and then act as if they intended to do it.
I found myself getting very miffed by this last group, because they totally ignored the good work we were doing. They didn't even want to know about it, and they acted as if we are forcing them into some sort of altruistic slavery. Why couldn't they simply spend two dollars on a toothbrush for someone who is much less fortunate?
After several people whose cars suggested that they had the means to help us didn't even give us a glance, I reluctantly approached the next woman and offered her a flier. She started to walk around me and then stopped.
She said, "I'm out of work and if I don't get a job soon, I may actually end up in a shelter myself."
I stood there with the flier in my hand and a stunned look on my face as she went into the store.
A few minutes later, this same woman emerged. She didn't have any items to donate but she did give me a single dollar bill and said, "I think I can understand what a homeless person must be going through."
Once again, I stood there with a stunned look on my face.
The gift she offered was small, but the sacrifice was big.
Others, however, could not even offer a kind word.
And for what it's worth, the irony is not lost on me that many times, I am that person who can't be bothered.
To me, that's the value of volunteerism and community service. It forces us to get out of our comfort zone and experience the world from another perspective.
I need a regular dose of it to keep me grounded. Maybe you do too.
But in the meantime, the next time we're approached by someone asking for a donation or wanting our help, let's take the time to greet them, listen to them, and consider their request.
Whether we end up helping or not, the experience is sure to be good for our soul... and our blind spots.
For more by Ron Culberson, MSW, CSP, click here.
For more on emotional wellness, click here.