A sideways glance was all I had time for, but it was enough for me to notice the young man at the back of the store talking with the Lovely Lady. “I did have something to talk about with you all, but I’ll be back.” The words gave no sense of foreboding, but it seems that we are seldom forewarned of the need to be on our guard. I thought nothing more of it and kept working with the customers who pushed their way through the door in a cascade that morning. Before I knew it, an hour had passed and the young man was back.
This time, I had a moment to spare, so I spoke to him as he wandered back behind a section of counter usually only accessed by personnel of the store. He picked up a cell phone which was plugged into the outlet on the back wall, dialed a number, and put it to his ear. I protested quietly, but the brash young man held up a finger to shush me and talked for a moment before placing the phone in his pocket. Then, winding up the electrical charger, he came out from behind the counter smiling. No explanation was offered, but I quickly understood that his question to the Lovely Lady earlier had been a request to charge his phone for awhile. In the progression of our conversation, I was to learn that this was his “finger in the wind”. You know; the old pioneer trick of licking a finger and raising it above the head to learn the wind direction. The young man simply wanted to find out what kind of people we were. If the Lovely Lady had refused his request for a little free electricity, he would have been on his way without any more conversation.
It seems that no good deed goes unpunished, so, having passed the first test, we were ready for the next one. He leaped into his story with both feet, telling me of children taken from him illegally by the Department of Human Services, and of the hoops they had placed before him through which to jump, along with the authorities’ refusal to honor any of their promises. The tortuous path led past an auto mechanic and a wife’s van (with money owed for repairs), ending up with a request, almost a demand, for two hundred dollars to get his children out of the state’s clutches. I am still unclear if the money was for the van with which to pick up the children, or for the ransom demanded by the evil DHS agents, but I wasn’t reaching for my wallet. Not yet.
First I wanted to clarify some things, so I licked my finger and stuck it up in the wind. Figuratively speaking, that is. Just for a few questions. Had he checked with any local churches? Yes, he had talked with several pastors, but they were all selfish, un-Christian men who refused to help and sent him to the local agencies. Well, what about them? Any help there? No, he had tried them, but he lived in a town about thirty miles away (the town where the bureaucrats he needed to assuage were located) and the local agencies in my town only help local residents. Okay. How about the agencies in his town? Why was he here and not there making his case? It seemed that he knew every agency I mentioned, all of them staffed by evil people who refused his requests and didn’t want to help. As I heard about all those unkind people who were in cahoots against him my upraised finger detected, not just a breeze, barely felt…but a steady gale. It was not a favorable wind.
Those of you who know me, know that I almost never refuse to help people in need. It’s almost like I’m the character in a recent movie entitled “Yes Man”, starring that clown, Jim Carrey, as a loser who changes his ways (and life) by learning to say “Yes” to everybody. I have never been able to sit through the entire movie, due largely to my allergy to stupidity and overacting (both common Carrey traits, it seems to me), so I have no idea of the outcome, but the premise is quite interesting. It reminds me of the old Johnny Mercer song “Accentuate the Positive”, a catchy little ditty which reminds us to “eliminate the negative”, in addition to following the instruction of the title. Oh! And we can’t forget, “Don’t mess with Mister In-Between!” It’s the same reasoning that’s been trotted out for eons as a cure-all for all that ails you. Think positive thoughts, speak positive words, do positive things, and nothing bad will ever befall. I like positive. I try to keep a positive mindset. Indeed, I “smile even though my heart is breaking” sometimes. But even I know when I’m being scammed.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m not sure that I can help you,” the words came from my mouth as I moved toward the door, a clear indication that our conversation was at an end. He got the message. He did look a bit perplexed as he left. Evidently he had miscalculated. These people weren’t what he had expected at all. The nice facade he had seen when the kind lady allowed him to use the power for his phone hadn’t been the reality he found when he returned to close the sale.
I’m never sure if I’m doing the right thing when I help someone with a handout of cash. The flip side of that is that I’m not usually sure if I’m doing the right thing when I refuse to help someone, either. I would far rather err on the side of generosity than stinginess. I recognize that nothing I have is mine, nor do I believe that I deserve what I have been blessed with. Having said that, I believe firmly that true stewardship demands that generosity and wisdom go hand in hand. It was obvious that the supplicant in front of me this day was not telling me the truth, but rather was manipulating facts to fit his purposes.
Why am I telling you this depressing anecdote? It’s because I have been fooled before. It will happen again. Acknowledging that, I don’t want to knowingly waste a gift on a con-man when there are others who still genuinely need help. I’m sure that folks pass your way everyday who need help too. I would encourage you to be “yes men” when presented with the opportunity to help a fellow traveler. But, generosity comes with a price. The old stories tell of houses marked by the hobos in times past. Those who shared what they had would be preyed upon until there was no more to give. When you say yes to the opportunities to help others, you can be sure that more will come. Give generously, but wisely. In my experience, the storytellers are often the ones who have had lots of practice. The world is full of tricksters who will happily take that which is intended for those with real needs. Find the ones who need your help and help them.
“Yes” is a great word. It’s a word full of promise, full of hope. I love to say it. But, I’m learning to be a bit more astute in my use of the word. And, I’m practicing a shorter word. “No.” The better I get at saying the latter at the proper time, the more chances I’ll have to use the former when it is the right thing to say.
“I have had prayers answered – most strangely so sometimes – but I think our Heavenly Father’s loving-kindness has been even more evident in what He has refused me.”
(Lewis Carroll~English author and poet~1832-1898)
I don’t ask this often, but I’d really like to know what you think about this subject. Am I right? Am I way off-base? Tell us why. Better still, tell us your experiences. Keep it polite. Unlike what happens in Washington, expressing a varying opinion here won’t make us enemies. It just helps us to understand each other better.