Uncommon Courtesy: Why Do Some People Fear Being Generous?

Philadelphia Flower Show by Sally Wiener GrottaA couple of weeks ago, Daniel and I were at the Philadelphia Flower Show, an annual indoor spectacle of flowers, fantasy gardens and all things green. The oldest horticultural show in the world (since 1829), it’s a wondrous showcase and educational forum for serious gardeners, topiary artists, flower aficionados, kitchen gardeners and even jewelry makers who work with plants. The last time Daniel and I had attended the Flower Show, we had been newlyweds. Every year since, we kept missing it: off on an assignment somewhere else in the world, on book or article deadlines, or simply too involved in our lives to think of scheduling a visit. Last week, we happened to be in the city at the right time so Daniel could have some minor surgery. Since he was just out of the hospital and still recuperating, we borrowed my dad’s motorized scooter. That allowed him to enjoy all 33 acres of the show, despite his post-surgical weariness.

The crowds were beyond dense, and most people thought nothing about darting in front of the moving scooter, much as they would if they were jockeying for one more car length during rush hour on the Schuylkill Expressway. It was some of the trickiest driving Daniel had done since India. Still the displays were stunning. Daniel particularly enjoyed seeing the show from the viewpoint of the many children who stood about the same height as his seated position. Their sense of wonder and exuberance was contagious; everything was new and exciting… from the fairyland-like scenes to the profusion of exotic, sometimes bizarrely shaped plants. Even the scooter was a source of merriment and “I want” syndrome. What’s more, unlike the thousands of adults that crowded about us, the children made eye contact with Daniel.

After a couple of hours at the show, the scooter started beeping a low battery warning. Daniel had wisely brought the charging cord which we plugged into an electrical outlet in a dark corner down a small hallway. Daniel wasn’t dependent on the scooter, except for endurance. So we could have continued walking around the show for about a half hour while the battery got a top-up charge. The problem was that we were concerned about leaving Dad’s scooter unattended.

I went to the scooter rental table in the concourse just outside the show door. Behind it was a curtained off area that was empty, but had several electrical outlets that weren’t being used. I suppose it was where they charged their scooters, when they were returned. I told the woman who stood behind the table our problem and asked, “May I plug the scooter in back there? That way, my husband will be able to continue enjoying the show.”

She smiled and said, “If it were up to me, sure.” Then she turned to a second woman who had just arrived. “But my shift if over, you’ll have to ask her.”

The other woman initially ignored me, even though I am certain that she had heard my exchange with her associate.

I repeated my request to her. “My husband has just had surgery, and we’re using a scooter so he can be here, but the battery is about to die. May we plug it into one of the outlets back there for about a half hour?”

She stared at me, clearly uncomfortable if not aghast at being asked something she wasn’t primed to deal with. “No, I can’t,” she said emphatically. Then, she returned to ignoring me.

I was flabbergasted. Why would anyone flatly refuse such a reasonable request to help another, especially when it would cost her nothing?

That trivial 60 second interaction has haunted me ever since then. I’ve been trying to understand why she reacted that way. Sometimes, I dismiss it as a sad example of how courtesy and decency are alien or an annoying imposition to some people. But there must be more to it than that.

The woman had a choice. She could have helped us, strangers who had nothing to do with her, but people who had a need she could easily satisfy. However I believe she was fearful of taking responsibility for something that wasn’t part of her job description (and she worried about how her boss would react), or or perhaps it simply didn’t fit into her plans. Some people have difficulty dealing with the unexpected and immediately equate it with the unwanted.

Then again, I could blame the mindset of our litigious society. Every action or decision is perceived as possibly resulting in being sued. No one wants to do anything that could possibly end up with them having to justify themselves in a court of law. Conventional wisdom dictates that it is better to avoid doing anything that could be construed as taking legal responsibility. Common decency be damned; it’s better to protect your rear.

A friend (I’ll call her “Sue”) told me a story a couple of months ago about needing an introduction to “Fred” from “Ellen” that might lead to a possible job interview. Ellen refused her, saying that if she asked Fred for a favor, Ellen would be under an obligation to Fred. She further explained that was the way the business world worked in New York City. Favors are currency that mustn’t be spent frivolously, because they incur debts that could be called in at any time. To heck with the idea of paying it forward, to giving generously because it’s the nice thing to do and a way to add some brightness to our lives. What’s more, what about the idea that Sue might be just the right person for the job, which would mean that Ellen would be doing a favor for Fred? All Ellen could envision were potential personal disadvantages that paralyzed her from doing anything.

So maybe the woman at the scooter rental who refused to help me did so because she saw no personal advantage. After all, what obligation of favors could she demand of another (me) whom she would never see again?

No, that doesn’t feel right. The one thing I remember most clearly about her is that she was closed off, as though fearful. I can never know the source or complexion of that fear.

In the final analysis, what I feel for that woman is pity. Her world is so limited by what she dare not do, by her worry about what others might say about her, or about giving away pieces of herself to strangers. She’d never consider trying to make life easier or better for others simply because she has the power to do so, to create smiles on strangers’ faces.

But then, maybe I met her on a bad day. I would like to believe that. I hope that she can be generous and kind, not just for her sake but for all of us. It’s a kind of faith I carry with me and which keeps me going, that courtesy and decency aren’t uncommon, but one of the definitions of who we are as human beings.

Being kind isn’t a static description of any individual, but a choice we make every day, in every interaction. That women was unkind in one situation. May she — and may all of us — make a better choice tomorrow.

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