I have been spending far too many hours indoors since my arrival home from Ecuador and I’m starting to feel cooped up. As afternoon approaches I decide to dig out my well worn three speed bike from the garage and ride it to the store, soaking up some fall sunlight. I fail to notice before leaving that the back tire is beyond flat, so I stop at the nearest gas station to fill it up with air.
Earlier that morning I had read an essay by Kevin Kelly that had really impressed me. In a Christmas letter written to his friends and family he recounts the acts of generosity and kindness he has experienced during his travels across America and throughout Asia. Rather than focusing on the act of giving (which we are often more familiar with) he describes what it feels like to receive.
“To solicit a gift from a stranger takes a certain state of openness. If you are lost or ill, this is easy, but most days you are neither, so embracing extreme generosity takes some preparation. Ironically, you are less inclined to be ready for the gift when you are feeling whole, full, complete, and independent!”
I wish I could say I have learned to accept the gift of assistance gracefully and willingly, however this is far from the truth. I was born in a town named Independence, I am the oldest in my family and even though my sisters are grown I still feel overly protective and motherly towards them. I have chosen a profession that places me in the caregiver role, and I live in a society that rewards autonomy and emphasizes individualism.
I hate expressing vulnerability. In college I lived with a roommate who was far better at asking for help than I. We would often discuss the balance of giving and taking and she frequently gently pointed out that my stubbornness prevented others from feeling valuable and needed.
I think this is why traveling for me is a necessary and deliberate step in character development. The values of self sufficiency and reliance that have been woven and ingrained into my being often come in direct conflict with the ability to survive in a foreign country. Asking for help is not so much an inconvenience as a daily reminder of how helpless I really am.
During the first week I was in Ecuador I locked myself out of my apartment twice. In the weeks that followed I left an assortment of items at random internet cafes scattered throughout Shell including my $500 camera and gifts I had purchased for home. Each time I realized my mistake and returned to the cafe I found my belongings carefully set aside and secured for me. On several occasions I found myself making bus connections in the middle of the night, relying on the direction of strangers to point me in the right way and keep me safe. Little by little, accepting these gifts of kindness became less uncomfortable and I began to depend on the routine guidance of others to get me through each day.
I lean my bicycle next to the pump and realize I need 75 cents to air up my tire. I search through my wallet and find a mixture of centavos and nickels, coming up ten cents short. I’m not sure what to do. I could possibly make it to the store and back on a flat but it will be difficult. I get ready to leave, thinking again of Kelly’s essay, contemplating his words on the importance of being open to receiving help, remembering his question, “How will the miracle happen today?”
As soon as I get on my bike an older lady comes towards me, offering a quarter. “You need air in your tire!” she says. I’m amazed but I really shouldn’t be. There is something magical that happens when an extended hand is offered and taken, the current of life’s energy shifts, benefiting both involved. Kelly observes, “When the miracle flows, it flows both ways. When an offered gift is accepted, then the threads of love are knotted, snaring both the stranger who is kind, and the stranger who is kinded.”
Traveling by default makes me more vulnerable and likely to welcome the charity of others but perhaps the ability to receive graciously can be cultivated at home if only I am open to the opportunities to receive. Kelly ends his essay with this, “No matter how bad the weather, soiled the past, broken the heart, hellish the war, I believe all that is behind the universe is conspiring to help us — if we will humble ourselves enough to let it.”