She wanted to buy our loft bed. The secret was that we were selling it for three times what we paid for it.
I knew that she was either recently divorced, or that she broke up a close relationship. She was buying this bed as a result of moving out of her prior home.
I knew her new home would be a 440 sq. ft studio. Quick mental math made me think that her ‘studio’ was actually a tiny 20′ x 22′ garage converted into living space in a house built in the 60’s or prior. The cheapest form of housing available.
I knew that she recycled cans and borrowed money from her mother to pull together the cash for this purchase. I knew that she drank too much Coca-Cola. She thinks she likes it, but its also just about cheapest form of calorie in the grocery store, especially when purchased by the case. And the cans you save from all that soda let you hide the fact that you actually collect many more to make ends meet.
She was a misfit. The kind of person who would have been at the bottom of the social hierarchy in high school. Neither beautiful, nor intelligent, nor athletic, nor musical, nor artistic, nor quirky, nor perky, nor funny, nor rebellious, nor much of anything else. Not really picked-on because she wouldn’t be worth the trouble. The kind who had one secret friend and skated by beneath the detection of both teachers and fellow students.
My wife instantly felt bad for selling the bed to her, and asked if we could lower the price in Gujarati. I replied that we’d see if she negotiated.
But as we were loading her vehicle, I was concerned that we had not yet discussed money, much less transferred its possession. I was resistant to helping.
The truth is that this woman made me feel uncomfortable. She was close to the end of her capacities–feeling lonely, lost, and hurt by the world– but not yet broken beyond the point where she lacked to ability to ask for help. She was struggling, barely above water in every dimension of life, afraid she might drown at any moment, and eager to grab on to anything that could keep her afloat.
She needed a friend–a break, and I was afraid to be either. I could not let her see how much I felt her pain because I was afraid that any display of compassion or kindness would lead her to latch on for dear life. And once she grabbed on, I would not have the heart to push her away despite how much of a burden she became.
I couldn’t be responsive because I was afraid of being responsible. I didn’t want the burden of doing what I knew to be right.
So I put on a disinterested expression, and loaded the car. I deflected conversation. I avoided eye contact. I tried to get her to do some of the lifting, but did much of it myself anyways.
And it worked. She gave us the full price we asked for. No negotiation, or even hint thereof. Though we were selling it for three-times of what we bought it for, it was still less than one-third of what a new one would cost. For all she knew, we were already doing her a favor.
According to the values of the market, everyone was winning in that moment. We were selling an item we had used for 9 months at a profit, and she was buying something she needed at a huge discount over retail price.
Yet according to the values of the heart, everyone was losing in that moment. I was causing my wife and I to suppress our instincts of kindness and compassion, and this woman who so desperately was in need of some kindness and compassion was walking away empty-handed and empty-hearted from two people who try to live those values.
As I type this, I’m trying to think of the proper way to make amends. I could find out her new address and anonymously get $20 to her. But she needs far more than money. I could invite her over for pizza with friends, but is it fair to disrupt this kind of social gathering with someone who is so deeply needy? I could resolve to not repeat such a mistake, but is it enough to be aware of my own failure without rectifying the current one?
More than that, I just don’t know what the “right” level of response is. On a subtle level, my ego tells me that I’m nothing like this woman. Yet when I pay close attention, I see that I’m just like her. We both want–we both need the same things to feel whole and complete. Pure air, water, food, friends, and work. To love and be loved.
And in my darkest hours, I hope to be worthy of the kindness and compassion of people who know that we’re all the same.
Its time to earn what I wish for…