It was a gorgeous spring day – one of those days where the sun shines impossibly bright, the warmth envelops your entire body, and your spirit is lifted with the promise that summer, finally, is just around the corner. I opened the sunroof and rolled down my windows, breathing in the freshness of the changing season.
I swung into a gas station and filled up my tank. As I hopped back into the car and was about to put my key in the ignition, I heard a voice from the passenger’s side. I looked up to see a man peering at me through the wide-open window, telling a story of how he had just been released from prison and was going through a hard time. As he spoke, against my will my eyes darted to my purse sitting there on the passenger seat, easily within his reach, opened wide with my wallet tossed carelessly on top of it. They shifted to the unlocked doors and then to the keys in my hand, as I weighed whether I should quickly get myself out of there or politely apologize for not being able to help him that particular afternoon.
But instead I did something else. I drew in my breath, smiled, and talked to him. I don’t even remember how it happened, but somehow we ended up talking about Jesus as I fished through my purse for a few dollars to hand over. And then he thanked me, and I started up my car and drove off, feeling the rush of adrenaline from pushing myself out of my comfort zone.
My background is in social work, and for many years I worked with some of our society’s most marginalized individuals. But there’s a reason I’m not in the trenches anymore…I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easy to get jaded, disillusioned, and exhausted. While there are plenty of success stories, they are often overshadowed by more sensational ones that can sadly harden a person’s heart toward the cause if they’re not careful.
I think back on that beautiful spring day and I admit I’m ashamed of my initial, visceral reaction and the automatic assumptions I had about that man’s intentions and potential capabilities. I hate that my brain went there, automatically and without any reason. And as I drove away the adrenaline pumped not just because of the exchange between myself and that man, but because I was also given an uncomfortable glimpse into the state of my own heart.
I’ve kept that story in my mind as the months have passed since, not necessarily dissatisfied with my performance but with my reaction. Knowing that my actions have the power to change my heart, I decided to make an effort toward generosity and have practiced it when the opportunities arose. Whether it was a food drive, charity donation, or a person standing on a freeway ramp, I tried to respond to the still, small voice in my heart when prompted and silence the negative thoughts that cause me to hesitate.
My efforts culminated with an encounter last week, this time in the parking lot of a grocery store. I stood outside my car with my little toddler beside me, gathering my re-usable bags as we prepared to head in and do our shopping. A man walked up to us and explained he was hungry, asking if we might be able to help. And as I combed through my wallet I realized that my heart was calm, my mind wasn’t trying to figure out whether he was being truthful, I wasn’t fighting off any prejudiced assumptions, and that my response was just…natural.
I know we’ve all heard on the news about the scams that go on, and that we love heart-warming stories of the “deserving” or “worthy.” But I’m coming to learn that it’s not my place to judge anyone’s worthiness, truthfulness, or intentions. The more I practice relinquishing control in this area, the more I’ve begun realizing that generosity in giving is less about the state of someone else’s heart, and more about the state of my own.