When could helping others ever be considered a mistake?
The Church was beautiful, yet, purposefully simple. I was in high school and had been dating my boyfriend (coincidentally, also named) John for six months, and he had brought me with him to mass. As row after row of parishioner’s lined up to receive the Communion wafer, I did what I believed any loyal girlfriend would do: (unbeknownst to him), I followed John up to the altar. When it was my turn, John turned back in surprise, but it was too late; the wafer was placed by the priest directly on my tongue. It was totally plain, essentially tasteless. When I returned to my seat, John’s sister Donna giggled and said, “You are so funny. The wafer is only for Catholics that receive Communion!” I felt foolish and felt my face flush with embarrassment.
When I later recounted this story to my older brother, Peter, he was a bit confused and challenged me. “Why the heck would you have been in church eating a Communion wafer?” I replied matter-of-factly. “What’s the difference? Don’t you remember? Big grandma took us to visit Santa when we were kids.” I viewed this as similarly innocuous. (“Big Grandma” was the name we called my mom’s mother since she cleared 5’5 feet, a giant compared to our father’s mother, my little grandma). “Meg, that is ridiculous!” Peter then proceeded to let me know what the wafer represented. Oops.
Even without my wafer error, the very fact of my being Jewish made me feel like a fish out of water at that service. However, when I noted the baskets passed around for donations, I was reminded instantly of the Jewish concept of “tzedakah.” In its simplest terms, giving tzedakah or charity is simply an act of righteousness and a commandment to help the needy. The passing of the basket at the mass taught me that no matter one’s religious affiliation, the duty to help people in need was a shared priority. One question that often arises, however, at least in my life, is how to decide when “trying to help” crosses the line.
In March of this year, the Hometown Quarterly printed an article I wrote (“Let Them Stare!”). In the piece, I recalled an experience with a sales clerk at H&M in Manhattan who persisted in her well-meaning but clueless attempt to help me sign my own credit card slip. Since Let Them Stare was published, several readers have approached me with the same reaction. “Meg, I cannot believe that that type of thing happens to you!” All the time. At its most basic level, even I get it. After all, who ever heard of being able to write with only one finger? Surely I must need an opposing finger to balance a pen! There is also no surprise that the offer to help me, regardless of my capabilities, goes beyond penmanship. For example, I was recently in Washington, D.C. and a taxi driver insisted on not only helping me with my luggage, but even tried to hold my purse to assist. When I said no thanks, he persisted, still wanting to try to help me.
Recently, I couldn’t resist reading the news story of “Clueless” star Alicia Silverstone pre-chewing food for her 10-month-old son, Bear Blu, and then feeding him out of her own mouth like a bird. Hmmm…. I’m pretty sure that if there’s a line to cross from being helpful on the one hand, to being over-the-top nurturing on the other, that may have been it. My own parents could have had their “Silverstone” moment when I was born because no one else in the family had even been born with ectrodactyly and they had no idea if I would be able to do otherwise expected things like walk and write. Instead of trying to do everything for me, my parents allowed me to explore independently how not to bite more than I could chew. I do believe that if they had intervened all the time and tried to proactively help me, I would have emerged as a dependent, overly cautious woman who might actually have believed I needed all the help being offered from strangers!
This week’s blog post is intended to have us all stop and think, even take a breath, before we offer help to another we assume is physically needy or merely looks different from anyone we have ever seen. In fact, if you hold back and observe, you might just be surprised to learn that at times, the greatest way to be supportive or “helpful,” is actually to not help.
I must admit, sometimes I welcome help. For instance, it would have been great if John had noticed me in line behind him at Church and stopped me from accepting the Communion wafer!