The streets were covered in slush resulting from layers of salt and multiple attempts by snowplows to make it easier for us to drive on. The snowstorm the day prior caused us to wait until today to venture out for some last-minute provisions for our Thanksgiving feast. The parking lot was a mess as well but everyone who lives in this beautiful mountain ridge town knows how to dress appropriately and protect their feet to easily make it from the car to the store and back.
Well, this California girl is not used to this weather, but I did bring my boots!
My husband had backed into our parking spot, a move I don’t like but hey, I wasn’t driving. And I think he did it because he overshot it in the first place. We made it in to the store without me falling on my face. We only filled 2 grocery bags so we both carried one. I was also carrying a cup of coffee and my purse but managed just fine. As I got back into the car, I noticed we had a front-row view of all the other shoppers as they walked to and from their cars and how intently every person took each step. I noticed how a few people attempted to push a grocery cart through this mess as they struggled to navigate the minefield of ice potholes and slush.
Bruce (my husband) and I looked at each other as we noticed an older lady right in front of us, trying endlessly to get her cart to plow through the mess. When she pushed the cart and it didn’t cooperate, she walked around to the front of it in an attempt to pull it out of the hole it was stuck in. So, the chivalrous man that I married started to get out of the car to help her but hesitated as he saw she was making a slight move out of the spot she had been glued to. When it looked like she had control of her cart, he sat back in his seat and started to close his door. He gingerly repeated this dance a few more times until he finally got out of the car and went over to help her. Because I stayed in the car, I was unable to hear the communication between the two of them, but I could see that he was able to help move her cart a few feet forward until he turned and headed back toward our car. I looked at him and then back at the lady and noticed that she was still stuck. So, when Bruce got back into our car I asked, “What happened? She is still stuck”. He said, “I know, she didn’t want me to help her”.
How often have you refused a genuine act of kindness?
Bruce was not discouraged by this woman’s refusal of assistance, but it got me thinking about both sides of this interaction. When anyone goes out of their way to help another person, it is a conscious, deliberate choice to immediately stop what they were doing and place themselves into the other person’s environment, to give of themselves to that individual. An individual most of the time is unknown to the rescuer.
But why would someone refuse help like this?
Not just in this case but in many other situations.
The person that is the recipient of this form of generosity can either receive the help or not. If they graciously receive the help, then there is a positive interaction between the two which can give them both a warm fuzzy feeling. You know, the kind where you are uplifted, feeling a little lighter, and that you matter and have made a difference.
There is a vulnerability linked to doing what my husband did. It is a decision that comes from a deep caring for others and selflessness that is envied by many. My husband used to be an EMT and he has a radar for people in need like this lady in the parking lot. I witness random acts of kindness all day long with people holding the door open for me as I am entering a building right behind them or allowing another car to enter a lane in front of them. (it does happen!) But it’s bigger actions like this one which didn’t take Bruce much effort to do that make such a difference. I didn’t see anyone else attempt to come to this woman’s aid, just Bruce. And there was plenty of time as he was waffling back and forth in the car before he went to her rescue.
So, what is it about people who refuse help?
I was having this conversation with my brother in law and he reminded me of the fact that we just don’t know what other people experience in their lifetime. I know this is true, but she must have had a good reason, right? What could that be though? I have some thoughts and theories, but you may have a few of your own.
Theory #1: Maybe she thinks she is undeserving?
As I witnessed the interchange between Bruce and this woman, I could see that she never looked at him. She was talking but not acknowledging him at all. She may have been embarrassed that she was unable to maneuver her way through the icy parking lot like she used to be able to so easily when she was younger. ‘Embarrassment’ is often interpreted as ‘shame.’ “Although there is some overlap, embarrassment and shame are distinct constructs. Embarrassment comes when our weaknesses are exploited, shame is a response to something that is morally wrong or reprehensible and arises from measuring our actions against moral standards and discovering that they fall short”. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/hide-and-seek/201408/the-psychology-embarrassment-shame-and-guilt She may think her inability to push her cart is reprehensible in her eyes and she may be having a hard time with aging.
Theory #2: Was she afraid of him?
In the middle of the day in a grocery store parking lot? My husband is not a big man and would not give any woman pause to think he could take them out. If she grew up in an environment where she was threatened regularly, allowing herself to experience or trust a random act of kindness would be tantamount to letting her guard down. Psychologist John Bowlby originated his work on Attachment Theory as a ‘lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.’ https://www.simplypsychology.org/attachment.html
There may have been trauma connected to any attempt to attachment for this woman so, in this context, she would derive a positive emotion from his offer of assistance, and she could not risk that. If she was in this heightened state of threat assessment, she would fail to recognize, process and pay attention to the positive actions, words, or facial expressions made by my husband. Attachment trauma carries fear around like a shield of protection.
Theory #3: Maybe she was confused.
As my brother in law stated we don’t know any of her experiences and I contend that she may not know them herself. Could it be possible that she may have been experiencing an episode of dementia? I know I have experienced this with my mother. She will sometimes ask me to do something for her and then when I do it, she gets upset and pushes me away telling me she never asked for me to do that for her. I didn’t ask my husband if the woman he was helping got angry but not all dementia victims react the same way.
Theory #4: Maybe she has not experienced this kind of generosity before and it surprised her.
I cannot imagine living a life for as long as this woman has and not ever been offered help like this before. She may truly not know how to deal with this level of kindness, and it may have been a very unsettling moment for her. Inexperience often reacts in fear, fear often manifests as insecurity, and both often act out in anger.
Theory #5: Pride
She may be suffering from pride. Pride in that she is so concerned about her ability to do this task on her own that she needs to prove, to any extent, that she is more than capable of taking care of herself. As I said, I don’t know how old she was but I’m sure she was older than me which would place her in the era when women were starting to be very vocal about seeking equal rights and being self-sufficient. That time was not so long ago when extreme man-bashing happened and women wanted to prove that they were just as capable as men. I know women her age that still hold to a virtuous stand that they are self-sufficient and don’t need a man.
When pride is viewed as a virtue it is in one’s ability of greatness of magnanimity that can get in the way of enjoying the gifts, even the smallest ones, that may be placed right in front of them.
But what does that do to the person who is reaching out to offer genuine help? There may be a feeling of rejection. After all, rescuers make their moves straight from the heart, they have high regard for other human beings and in their act of selflessness they are offering a piece of themselves, unsolicited, and without expectation.
So, I asked Bruce how he felt about that lady rejecting his attempt to offer help. He said, “Nothing, she will get to her car eventually”.
He is so pragmatic but if it were me, I would not have had the same reaction. I would have gotten on my high horse and thought how ungrateful she was for not being a gracious receiver. And I would have gone on to evaluate her inability to successfully trek through that messy parking lot and even go so far as to predict her outcome. Come on, I am not alone in this thinking. But this was a lesson for me to step back and take a better look at myself.
This holiday season as we ready ourselves for the heightened experience of giving and receiving gifts of all kinds, may we consider our attitudes toward how we receive them as well as how we give them. Being mindful of where others may be in their lives can help us be gentler to them as well as to ourselves.