Life on Auto-Pilot

It’s becoming more and more evident to me that I live much of my life on auto-pilot – multi-tasking with my mind, my body, or both, never fully present or solely focused on the task at hand.  And today, my auto-pilot broke my heart.

I flew home to Chicago from Washington, D.C. earlier this afternoon.  I was walking home from the Blue line, preoccupied with my own thoughts and anxieties as I am leading a women’s small group for my church for the first time, and tonight was our first meeting.  I also have to fly back out to Maryland in the morning and was thinking ahead to re-packing and everything I need to get done for tomorrow.

As I was walking by the McDonald’s, a woman approached me.  She explained that the boy with her was her 15 year old son, and that she was not on food stamps, but she didn’t have any money and was hoping to be able to buy some hamburger to make her family a meatloaf tonight as all she had is potatoes.  I listened to her and reached for my wallet – I gave her the cash I had, which was about $25.  Her face lit up and her son was so excited about the meal they were going to be able to have.  She and her son thanked me profusely, and then she asked if she could give me her phone number so that I could call her if I ever needed anything at all.  I said “Sure,” and started to reach in my bag for my phone while asking her if she lived in my neighborhood.  She said that she did not; she lived in another neighborhood that was “full of gang-bangers” and that she is trying to get her son out of there and into a better area.  She asked me my name, which I told her, and then she introduced herself (Selena) and her son (Jacob), and I shook their hands.  I told her that I live just a couple of blocks down the street near the Bank of America.  Again, she said that maybe I could call her sometime if I ever needed a favor and that she is in my neighborhood often.  I thanked her for the offer and told her it was nice meeting her and that I hoped I would run into her and Jacob again soon, then went on my way.

As I walked away from that exchange, I thanked God silently for putting Selena and Jacob in my path and giving me an opportunity to help a neighbor in need.  But let’s get real – I was also giving myself a pat on the back for doing a good deed.  But when I finally reached home, I realized that in the midst of congratulating myself on my generosity of spirit, I had missed the bigger picture.

Selena had mentioned not just once, but twice, getting my phone number so we could stay in contact – and I never gave her my phone number or got hers.  So often, exchanges like this are one-time and transactional.  Someone asks me for money, I give them some, and then I never see them again.  And in most cases, it doesn’t really seem like the other person wants anything more from me than some cold hard cash.  Selena was different.  She didn’t just want me to give her something and then go away, she wanted something more than that.  And by failing to give her a way to contact me in the future, I denied her two very important things:

  1. I denied her dignity. It was obvious that she wanted to be able to do something for me in return, but by not offering a means of contacting me again, I robbed her of the opportunity to make this a two way exchange and not just a handout.
  2. I denied her relationship. She is my neighbor and someone who yes, could use cash, but could also probably use a friend.

My pious high quickly turned into crushing disappointment.  God had given me an incredible opportunity, and because I’d been too preoccupied with my own cares and too quick to congratulate myself on a good deed, I had missed it.

I am praying that I will encounter Selena and Jacob again sometime soon.  I won’t make the same mistake twice!  But more than that, I am going to strive to be more fully present in the moment, and to give whatever is in front of me my full attention, not to default to auto-pilot thinking and transactional interactions.

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