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A little change

Pretending I'm self-sufficient at the Family Dollar store.
By Meg Barnhouse
10.17.11

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Small change (©Craig Wactor/iStockphoto)

(©Craig Wactor/iStockphoto)

I was checking out at the Family Dollar store, six cents short at the register. Usually if you’re just a penny shy of what you need they will say, “Don’t worry about it.” Six cents, though, that’s more than a “don’t worry about it” amount. Digging through my pockets for the rest and coming up empty, I turned to apologize to the man behind me for holding up the line. He looked tired; his mahogany skin, his clothes, and his work boots were all filmed grey with cement dust. He hadn’t shaved in several days. His sweatshirt had a couple of holes in it where his T-shirt showed through.

“Sorry,” I said.

“What you need?” he asked.

“Six cents,” the clerk and I said together. Then she said, “Listen, it’s okay.”

At the same time he said, “I got you.”

“Thanks,” I said to the clerk and to the man at the same time.

“It’s no problem,” he said.

If I were to stop telling it here, this could make a good simple story. If I were not over-responsible, a firstborn, a Virgo, raised with Scots Protestant values, it could have ended like that. Instead, what happened next was that I went out to my car and rooted through the change compartment, found six pennies, went back in, and put them on the counter. “Here you go,” I said, turned around, and walked back out.

“I coulda got you,” he said, to my back.

I could not have driven out of that parking lot having taken anything from those two people. I didn’t want them watching my taillights, musing about how a middle-class white woman took six cents off them without looking back. I think now that it might have felt more respectful to accept the gift with thanks.

I have been chewing over this, asking myself questions about it. Would I have accepted six cents from a white-skinned man standing in the line behind me? A white-skinned woman? A dark-skinned woman? Would I have taken six cents from a friend? “Yes” to that last one. “No” to everyone else. Never. I didn’t realize I was so stiff-necked. What would it have hurt to owe another person a little, walking out of that store? Am I pretending that I’m self-sufficient in this world? It’s an illusion some wealthier people can preserve for a little while, at least. Would I have accepted an offer of help carrying something heavy to my car? Yes. He looked rich in physical strength, more than I was. I would have gladly accepted help from his wealth, but not from an area in which I assumed he was poorer than I. Allowing someone to help me out of their weaker place is too hard. It would be like me offering to carry something for him to his car. What a tangled mess all of this is.

I tell people that it is good to learn to accept help as well as to help. It’s good practice for times of sickness or when we are less physically able at certain times. If we are hard to help, our helpers not only have to help us, they have to endure our grumpiness and outrage at needing help, our snappishness and embarrassment. It’s easier for most of us to be the helper. I wouldn’t think anything of giving someone six cents in line, even a dollar or two. I’m hoping that after a few more spiritual growth cycles I can be the kind of person who could accept six cents from another human on the planet so that person could feel a little good about helping somebody else at the end of a long day laying concrete. It would be just a little change, and what’s so hard about that?


Reprinted from Meg Barnhouse’s new book, Broken Buddha> (Outlaw Hill Arts, 2011), available from the UUA Bookstore. ©2011 by Meg Barnhouse.

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