Pinching Pennies

I was raised by a horde of women that all have at least one thing in common: their generosity. They never told me to share or give, they didn’t have to, I learned by example. I learned by watching my mom lovingly give and care about people and expect nothing in return.

So giving I can do. Giving is second nature to me. Giving is something I feel almost obligated to do. But taking? Taking requires a little more practice, taking is almost a struggle. And this in part is also the fault of those same women, who also instilled in me stubbornness and an overpowering need to be independent.

Though I’ve gotten a LOT of help over the years from my family, particularly my mom and dad, people have usually had to fight to help me. And the person they were always fighting was me. Because half of me doesn’t want the help, half of me considers needing help to be failing. And worse, inconveniencing other people.

Mike’s mom just came to visit for about two weeks. I felt like I knew her almost immediately. She had that stubborn spark in her eye and when her diabetes gave her any trouble walking, she tried hard to refuse anyone’s help. I saw in her my Aunt Kathryn, my Aunt Joanne, and my Aunt Rose all bundled up into one package.

Every time anyone offered her help she’d politely refuse and do it determinedly on her own. Being a good son, Mike ignored most of her protests. But I personally immediately began trying to suppress the urge to ask her if she needed help. I knew she didn’t. I knew she was entirely capable of going it alone and most importantly, I knew that it killed her every time she needed help. I could tell by that familiar glint of stubbornness in her eyes.

Being in the Peace Corps, I get a living allowance of 500 dollars a month. This is not enough to support my adventure junkie habits (it’s hardly even enough to live on). When Mike suggested I go to Tanna with him and his mom, I knew I didn’t have enough money but I grudgingly and extremely gratefully accepted money help from my parents.

Halfway into the trip I ran out of money. Suddenly Mikes stubborn mom was forcing my stubborn self to accept her extremely generous help. I basically would have been stranded on Tanna without her. I was extremely embarrassed. Mortified that I couldn’t, at any point, offer to pay for a meal for her and Mike (or probably the likelier story, attempt to pay for a meal). Coming back from the airport in Vila on a bus, I was close to tears. I couldn’t even pay for my own bus ride to the Peace Corps office.

Mike was dropped off at the hotel to get the room key and Ms. Diffily and I headed to the resource room to wait for him. The two of us plopped down on the couch and a perceptive Ms. Diffily inquired as to why I was upset. I admitted how embarrassed I was. Instead of writing off my concern, she told me a story.

For a year, she said, she raised Michael on her own. She did everything herself. She was completely independent. But after a year of doing that, she asked herself: why? She asked herself: What did that get me?

This registered with me in an immediate, profound way. So eloquently simple that it’s hidden beneath our intricately crafted defense systems, the system that tells us that we have to go it alone. That we have to be stronger than we are. That we have to be able to support ourselves at every turn of the road.

But, why? What, as Mike’s mom pointed out, does that get us? In Vanuatu people take care of one another, a family unit, a village, is a support system. No one ever dreams of raising a kid alone. It’s unheard of. Why in our culture are we so obsessed with being stuck in our own helplessness, our own miserableness, our own anger, our own tight corners. What is so wrong about accepting help from people who care enough to offer it to you?

How can we possibly build our lives on our own? I can not picture a more feeble foundation than one created by a single man or woman. Nothing strong ever is, or ever will be, built by one person. So how can we expect our lives to be?

Maybe my stubbornness to accept help comes from seeing how much it can sometimes take out of the people offering it. Because sometimes it’s not returned, sometimes people abuse the kind of person that gives. I think maybe I see people that give a lot putting in so much, draining themselves to make other people happy, and I get scared that I’ll end up being one of those people, that I’ll drain someone who puts care into me and that I’ll never turn around and give them that care back.

But in the end, that’s not how it works at all. Caring for people is never as give and take as it may seem. When you smile at someone unexpectedly you brighten their day, and then they pass on that act of kindness to another, and then that person to someone else. You may never see that person again. They will never return that kindness to you. You didn’t lend it, you gave it away.

Is that all that kindness is? One act of compassion traveling from one person to another, an endless chain all over the world until it once again makes it’s way back to you? Do I break the chain by not accepting the kindness handed to me? Do I do the person giving away that kindness any favors? And above all else: do I do myself any favors by trying so hard to be such an independent person on a planet where I am so fortunate to be surrounded by billions of other people?

After two years of feeling isolated and alone, two years of relying on the kindness of people that I do not know and have never helped, I have found that the answer to that last question is a resounding no. The best favor I can do myself and anyone who ever shows me kindness, is to smile as big and brightly as possible and say thank you. And most importantly, to hope that someday, somewhere, somehow, an act of kindness initiated by me will find its way back to them.