I have recently been taking care of my wife after she had major surgery. Her recovery has been slow, though steady, and the experience has caused me to reflect on helpfulness from strangers. It is far too easy to forget the good that we can do when bombarded daily with images and stories about the bad, which annoyingly receives extensive coverage, regardless of where you look.
Helpfulness from strangers takes many forms and really happens often when you stop and think about it. When I was a teenager, my father was driving my mother and I back home from a trip to San Francisco. We were about half way across the Golden Gate bridge when a tire blew out in our car. My father was able to keep control of the vehicle, but there was no place to pull over. Worse, as we slowed traffic started to go around us at unsafe speeds. Just then, a highway patrol motorcycle officer noticed our plight and cut across several lanes of traffic to get to us. He put his lights on and motioned for my father to continue to drive forward as best that he could, which was very slow because we were quickly down to driving on a rim in the blown out tire. It was rush hour and even though the officer was behind us, cars were still flying past, and more than once they came incredibly close to hitting the officer. It seemed like forever until we finally crossed the bridge and made it to the first exit. We parked on the nearest wide shoulder and the officer radioed in for a tow truck.
Clearly, the officer was doing his job, but he did it with little regard for his own safety and he executed it quickly and instinctively. My father was Deputy Director of the State Department of Corrections at that time and was so grateful that he wrote a letter to Head of the California Highway Patrol commending the officer on the actions he took to assist us that day.
Years later, another less dramatic example of helping happened when I was a soldier returning home from overseas on emergency leave. My flight had been delayed by a layover in London, so when the plane landed at JFK airport in New York it was very late. I was not able to get a connecting flight to the West Coast until the morning. I also had no means to get a hotel at that time and so I was forced to wait at the airport. It was cold and damp, and I was tired and sitting in a chair with my bags when security asked me to leave. I had no place to go when an elderly lady next to me apparently figured that out and motioned for me to follow her. From all appearances she lived on the streets, so I was understandably a little hesitant to follow, but out of desperation I did. She led me to another distant terminal that had flights departing all night and did not close. I smiled, thanked her, and found a chair to make myself comfortable in until morning. Unlike the CHP officer, she did not have to help, but she did and it made a difference.
Another time happened years later when my wife and our then very young children were driving home from a Thanksgiving trip we had just taken. We were in the Sierra Nevada mountains and it had just gotten dark and it started to snow. The snow quickly turned to near blizzard conditions and so I stopped to put chains on the tires. I installed them quickly and we were back on our way. A short while later, and many miles away from any town or service station, one of the chains slipped off with a loud clang. I stopped and realized that a part was now missing rendering the chains useless. We also discovered that there was no cell coverage in the area and the snow showed no signs of letting up.
As my wife and I discussed our options, an old van pulled up behind us with a Hispanic family inside. A man around my age stepped out, who spoke better English than I did Spanish, and told me that he could help. He immediately took his shoe laces off and used them to tie the chains back into place. He then said that he would follow me and, before he walked away, I pulled out some money and offered it to him with my sincere thanks. He smiled and politely refused my offer and went back to his vehicle.
The storm worsened, but the unconventional repair actually held long enough to get us to the safety of a warm lodge. A short time later we pulled into the parking lot and waved at the van as they drove passed us and traveled on down the highway in spite of the storm.
I thought about these, and similar helpful acts, when I took my wife to her first post operative medical appointment. She required the use of a wheel chair due to the amount of walking involved. While wheeling her around, strangers held doors open for us and politely offered assistance. We also received help, and multiple offers of same, from numerous colleagues and coworkers. I found myself humbled and extremely appreciative of all the help being offered. I also wondered if this is what Mother Teresa had in mind when she said; “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other”?
Few would dispute that nearly everyone benefits from helpful acts, in whatever shape or frequency they take, throughout our lives. We would do well to remember that because, among other reasons, none of us know when we might suddenly find ourselves in need of help from a stranger!