Encounters: The Power of Empathy

 

By Lydia Adams

It was January 2012, quite possibly the worst month and year of my adult life so far. After two kids, two graduate degrees, and eight years of marriage, I wasn’t supposed to be sitting at the Half-Price Bookstore, hoping my old novels would fetch my family a meal—but that is just where I was. There had been internships, then contractor jobs with little return, and finally a throw-me-off-the-cliff-I’m-done layoff.

I found out that there is a point where you might as well be literally drowning in rising water, instead of disconnection bills. And when your kids are hungry, you get depressively creative. With everything of value either at a pawn shop or sold, I gathered up some of our many books and took my five-and-two-year-old to the other side of town.

I brought a lot of books—about three boxes—thinking I could at least get $40-$50. The man in the back helped me cart the books to the buying section and then I would have to wait, and wait. I would have to wait way too long to find out how much I would get for this frustrating, end-of-my-rope trip. So I took the kids to the children’s section to hang out just hoping I could get something out of this. They proceeded to ask to BUY everything in the section before turning on the sibling-rivalry/toddler-tired charm. Sigh.

Sitting there, I didn’t need a mirror to know how I must have looked. No makeup, old t-shirt and ready to spout tears at a moment’s notice. I saw a pretty woman sitting and waiting like me. “Are you selling books too?” she asked me. “Yes,” I mustered. More waiting, more sitting, more “Why can’t we buy this book, Why are we here, I’m hungry,” etc.

As it grew later, my little boy sprawled across my body and buried his head in my chest. I asked the woman if she had sold books here before. “Yes,” she told me. “You don’t get hardly anything for them. I don’t know why I did this again.” She rolled her eyes. My heart beat faster. Why did I do this AT ALL? I had no idea what I might receive for all this, but at least enough for a bag of groceries, I thought.

“Oh,” I said. “I was kind of hoping for like, $50.” Silence. “I really need anything I can get.” Oops, too much information. I was much too tired to filter at this point.

The woman looked at me apprehensively, “Well, maybe, um…you never know.”

Wow, so this was a mistake. Again, I was getting closer to tears, while my kids’ voices were getting whinier and their tummies hungrier.

“Valerie,” the speaker from the back said. “Well, that’s me,” the woman smiled as she stood up. “Good luck.”

“You too,” I managed. Ten more minutes, and it felt like forever.

Just as I was wondering if (and hoping that) a hard, dingy blue carpet had the capacity to open up and suck me in forever, “Valerie” returned with a handful of cash.

She extended her arm down to me and said, “It isn’t much. I’m sure you need it more than I do. God bless.” And before my jaw-dropped-open mouth could mutter a “Thank you” or an “Oh no, you keep it,” Valerie was gone.


In my hand was $15. On my cheeks and wetting my community theater t-shirt were the tears that had been lingering just below the surface all day, and from weeks before. In my heart was hope that had been absent for months. 

Soon it was my turn. With my $9 and the $15 from a stranger, I went to the store and bought my family food to last a few days. I felt such love and respect as I paid for my Kraft macaroni and cheese.

This woman will never know what I had faced during the year prior to our bookstore meeting.  She’ll never know how my heart melted and the sun shone out of my soul in that moment. And she won’t know how I think about this gesture as an example of how I can give to others now that I’m able.

But for me—her face, her words and her extended hand is a picture of humanity that I will never forget. “God bless,” is right. Thank you Valerie, thank you.

 

Lydia Adams works as a professional writer and business communicator in San Antonio, Texas. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism and a master’s degree in mass communication. She also writes prose and poetry as a hobby outside of work. She is married with two children.

[See all the Encounters guest posts here.]

For the next 3 weeks (through Friday, December 21, 2012), we’d love for you to share any encounters you’ve had.  Selected submissions will be published on Doves & Serpents.  Submissions should be sent to guest guestposts@dovesandserpents.org (please see our guest post guide).