Just last week I made a quick stop at my neighborhood CVS and inadvertently made a discovery about a form of philanthropy often overlooked. As I inched my way towards the register, a woman carrying a carton of milk stood awkwardly nearby. She carried two wrinkled dollars in her hand, and tapped the milk carton nervously against the counter. Her strange behavior distracted me from my impatience, and I slowly began to examine her more closely. Her sunken cheeks and hollow eyes led me to believe she was malnourished and the needle marks on the inside of her arm most likely meant she was feeding an addiction instead. Her blond hair appeared as though it hadn't been washed in months, and her sunburn skin looked incredibly painful. She wore a pair of dirty tennis shoes with missing laces, and a men's t-shirt that swallowed her tiny frame. It wasn't long before I noticed that the back of her shorts were covered in blood.
Clearly, she was menstruating and at that instant I saw a woman that needed help, and not a person that was potentially homeless or an addict that needed my pity. My heart sank as I thought how embarrassed she must have been to stand in line while the blood soaked through her pants. As a woman, I too have experienced that same type of embarrassment. The only thing more noticeable then her pants had to be the disapproving stares she received from those in line. It occurred to me the reason she was awkwardly standing nearby was because she was hoping to cut the line.
Once I made the connection, I quietly asked her if she'd like to go in front of me and she greeted my gesture with a grateful smile and jumped in line. As she paid, I wondered how I could politely ask if I could help her without coming across as offensive or risk embarrassing her in front of others. Unfortunately, no way seemed the right way to offer her help, and before I knew it she had paid for her things and ran out of the store. The cashier could not ring my items fast enough and I left before he could hand me my receipt. I assumed she must have gone in the direction of the main road and quickly spotted her trying to cross the busy intersection. Just as she was getting ready to dart in front of oncoming traffic, she heard me calling for her, and turned around, staring at me curiously. Once we were face to face, I blurted out whether she was OK and would she like for me to find her some new pants. Her initial look of apprehension was replaced by a huge smile and she simply replied "no, I'm OK, but thanks for asking."
As I walked back to my car I felt defeated by my inability to do more. I then began to wonder why she seemed so grateful for my having done nothing to help and it occurred to me that maybe she was content that I had simply offered to help or perhaps my allowing her to cut in line was more than enough. Better yet, maybe it had something to do with my not giving her the evil eye while she waited to pay for her things. Yup, maybe, just maybe being treated with respect and given the opportunity to maintain one's dignity can be just as valuable as receiving a donation of money or time -- if not more so. In the end, allowing the person on the receiving end of your helping hand to keep their dignity doesn't cost a thing, except maybe for your ego. And if your ego is in the way of respecting someone in need, then the person you're attempting to help may have very well done you the favor instead.