Lessons Learned

Admitting that I need help with something has NEVER been easy for me. And normally, the things I needed help with were minor, so it wasn’t so bad asking for (and getting) the help, because it was small and easy.

This time it’s a bit different.

I grew up knowing that you don’t ask for help. You don’t take help. You do it yourself, or you don’t do it at all. Sure, you can give to others, as long as there’s benefit for you in it, even if it’s later. And you hold them to that. You make sure that whatever they give you, you give back in some way, because that’s the way things are done and there’s no way that you “owe any favors”. It was like being a Lannister: We always paid our debts. There is no giving without receiving, and no receiving without giving in return. It’s a tedious account of cheques and balances that can be a hard game to keep up with.

I remember one Christmas during an especially tumultuous time in our family, and my sister and I opened our gifts. One that I opened was an electric keyboard. I was confused. The betrayed and disappointed look on my sister’s face is unforgettable. My sister was the one who had asked for it, so I started to hand it to her thinking that the tags had been mixed up, and my dad stopped me. “No, that’s for you.” He turned to my sister, and explained that if she wanted to go ahead and move in with our mother, then she could go right ahead, but the keyboard was mine and she couldn’t take it with her. The keyboard was a bribe to make her stay and make her feel guilty. I don’t think we ever really talked about it. I remember being too young to truly understand the significance of this action, but I remember the hurt involved, and I remember aplogizing to my sister for getting the gift she wanted. I felt guilty.

That guilt, as well as much more, followed me into my adult life. 

This is the way I learned about gift giving. It wasn’t about making the other person happy – it was about doing it out of expectation. Sometimes even out of manipulation. The gifts I gave were often disengenous, insincere and unwanted, because the thought behind it was typically  to get them SOMETHING, even though I didn’t know what. So most often it was a guess to wrap up a thing prettily and have something to exchange, in hopes that I lucked out and they were appreciative. Sometimes the gifts were made, sometimes bought, but more and more often I found people were indifferent to the gift and I became more and more insecure about my gift giving abilities. I learned to loathe Christmas and birthday shopping, because I just didn’t know how to give something that I felt the person would genuinely enjoy. The more I loathed gift shopping, the worse my gifts got. The times I enjoyed gift shopping I usually nailed it – because that person was truly in my mind as opposed to the expectation of giving something for the sake of giving.

I didn’t understand the true value of gift giving until much later. I’ve always tried to give in whatever way I was able, without wanting anything back. I was always told that I was selfish and disingenuous when I was a kid, and I was trying to be better than what they said I was. I didn’t want to be a bad person and I wanted to be good and generous. But then I was asked by my elders what I got for giving so much, and happiness just wasn’t an acceptable answer. Trying to find a balance to please everyone seemed impossible.

When you’re growing up and trying to figure these things out, it gets really confusing to have such conflicting theories.

So for years I tried to maintain that balance of cheques and debts. If someone did something for me, I’d do something in return. If I did something for someone else….. well, I didn’t always get something in return, and usually it didn’t bother me. But I have always had a hard time taking a gift as they were, with no expectation or guilt if I didn’t have something to offer in return. It’s just the way I knew the world.

That mentality has been slowly worn down over the years, and I’ve learned that I love to give. The shift truly started with the threat of going to jail. And it’s a story I’m going to share. Not one I’m proud of, but it was a humbling lesson for me.

I was 17 or 18 years old, working two jobs to cover rent and food, couldn’t afford a bus pass and used my bike to get everywhere, no matter what the weather was like. It was exhausting. Being on my own was still fairly new, and I was struggling trying to make everything balance. One day on my way to work, my bike brakes stopped working in the middle of a major rain storm and I was scared to keep going, so needed to hop on a bus with it. I always tried to keep bus change on me, just in case, but I had nothing at that time, and I knew I was short on change. I had checked all corners, drawers and couch corners for every nickle, dime and penny I could find. The driver wouldn’t have known for sure, though, since my fare was paid in such small change, and I could only apologize and let him know it was all I had. He scowled in suspicion as each coin tinkled into the container, but he gave me my transfer and I got my bike settled in for the rest of the trip, quickly forming my own indoor pool underneath me in my drenched clothes.

In getting to work, I realized I had no lunch. I can’t remember if I forgot it or if I didn’t have any food at home. I was in the habit of not eating breakfast. And I had to work my second job after the first one. I tried to make it through the day, but by the time my late lunch came on, I was lightheaded, hangry and ready to eat anyone that crossed my path.

But I was proud, and didn’t want to beg for food.

I went to the Zellers and stuffed a pack of ichiban noodles into my shoulder bag, hoping no one noticed, and went for the exit to go eat it. I was floored when someone grabbed by elbow tightly and whipped me around. “You can come with me, ma’am”, store security said.

I was terrified. I had no idea what to expect. Obviously, I was caught. I was hungry. And I had to be back on shift in 20 minutes.

I hadn’t realized that I was carrying a second package in my hand at the time, as well. Apparently I had grabbed another one without thinking, and very obviously walked out of the store with it. I’m not the best thief that ever did thief, apparently. My sneak skills were apparently not very finely honed. (Although, there was that one time I walked around a dollar store twirling a fun keychain with full intent of buying it, only to realize much later that I had this thing on my finger and couldn’t remember where the hell I had picked it up. When I did, I brought it back with so many apologies….)

She sat me down and asked me what else I took, and I pulled the other package out of my bag. She just looked at me. I was crying. I was apologizing. She asked me why I stole $3 worth of product, and I told her I simply didn’t have anything to buy it with, and I had no food until I could get home after my shift at the bar that night. It was early afternoon still. She said that she was under obligation to report me for minor theft, but if I didn’t want to have a criminal record then I could do community service. The thought terrified me, but having a criminal record scared me more. So I agreed to the community service.

She put the soup packages back into my bag, with a few dollars to grab a snack later if I needed. I was so grateful for her kindness. I never went through Zellers again while I worked at the mall. I wish I had gone back later to thank her and bring her coffee, but being young, I was too embarrassed or insecure or scared or something – because she was so nice, despite sending me for community service, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. I wasn’t used to it.

Experience lesson #1: Don’t forget a lunch, or at least a snack.

Lesson #2: It’s better to ask for help than to take from someone else. Someone will help. And we’ve all been there.

Lesson #3: Humility. 

Lesson #4: Kindness from strangers (or people in general) isn’t a thing to fear, and they aren’t always looking for something in return.

Community service terrified me. The volunteers at the homeless shelter knew I had committed a crime, so how would I be treated? As a criminal? I was proud, bold, and didn’t want to show my fear. I had to work in one of the shelters downtown – a place I had never experienced before. I scrubbed toilets, washed walls, changed bedding and washed dishes for the homeless. Some made dirty comments and catcalled me as I worked, but most averted my curious gaze and my attempt at a friendly (although scared) smile altogether, when I finally pulled out of my own shell to look at my surroundings a bit more.

Lesson #5: Be humble.

By the time I finished my community service, I had experienced a whole new world that I hadn’t really known before. Many had mismatched shoes and socks, they were unwashed, they smelled terrible and they didn’t help around the facility. Some were quiet. Some were angry. Some were sober, others were not. Some glared at me with obvious resentment, while others had looks familiar with envy.

And they were all thankful for the help offered at the shelter. And they all had a story to share.

Lesson #6: Listen.

I was welcomed to eat with them. I didn’t, at first, but eventually took them up on it. The volunteers shared stories. Some were previously recipients of the shelter’s services. Some were homeless. Some had homes, but nothing else, and came for food. And the more I listened, the more they shared what I now know to be normal people who once led what we know as normal lives who got lost in their situations that brought them to this place, to teach me these lessons they learned themselves that would take much longer to truly sink in.

Lesson #7: Be kind.

I think of that situation often, from my own mistakes, to the kindness of the security guard and the kindness of the shelter volunteers and the people who frequented that location. And I’m grateful for all of it, because many of the lessons I learned immediately while others took a bit longer to take hold. But it changed my life and my outlook on people and their situations, and especially on judgement.

And I’ve learned that I don’t need to please anyone else with the methods of my giving, and it’s my decision to make. I learned that in giving, I always get something in return regardless. Friendships, knowledge, love, satisfaction, smiles, hugs, lessons…. it’s something I found I loved doing, but started not wanting anything back anymore. No credits, no debts, no worries.

Sometimes I gifted money, but more often it was time, or food, or things we could part with or gifts that we’d find that just suited a person so well. It just felt good to do it. I still had a hard time accepting things from others, though, and would respond with statements that it was too much, or that I didn’t have anything to give back, or that they shouldn’t have. 

And in doing so I truly was ungrateful. Someone went out of their way to do something kind for me, and I didn’t want it, because I didn’t have something to give back, which made me feel bad. And I couldn’t get the comments about being selfish or what I knew about having a debt to pay out of my head. But what about the other person?

In reversed roles, I’d feel bad if a gift was given back to me, because I’d see it as a sign that they didn’t like or appreciate the gift, or perhaps some other hidden reason that I didn’t understand regarding our relationship. So in refusing gifts, was I causing harm to my relationships? Probably. I started practicing gratitude, and accepting what people offered, how it was offered, with sincere appreciation. The hardest of those gifts to overcome have been compliments. But I’m working on it. It’ll be a lifelong practice that I’ll never perfect, I’m sure.

The best I, or anyone, can do is to be better.

Since it’s just my husband and I, we frequently buy each other gifts randomly throughout the year, as well as things for others as we see them and feel it’s something that person would truly love. When it comes to traditional gift giving at Christmas and birthdays, we’ve stopped following tradition altogether. It was just too much. We don’t give or expect Christmas or birthday gifts at all anymore. We’ve been called grinches at Christmas, and we’ve been given slightly dirty looks, but we decided to do what was best for us. Christmas used to cause us both alot of stress, and it wasn’t fun. We realized that this was not the spirit of gift giving, and we have no regrets for making this change. Due to work schedules and time off around the holiday season, it usually also caused much financial distress ontop of the expectations, which has been alleviated. We’ve learned to truly simplify the holidays and only do those things we are able without reaching a point of exhaustion, and the time spent with friends and family mean so much more to both of us now than they ever have. We can be truly grateful and loving instead of stressed and excited for the season to be over.

We gift as we’re able and as we’re thinking about people specifically. We make gifts, as well, for those who enjoy the handcrafted wares. We used to both volunteer quite a bit, but as that has declined we’ve donated monetary gifts to different organizations, events and people who need it, instead.

This year, things have changed, and we haven’t been able to gift much at all.

Asking for help is not something I’m well practiced at… but that’s changing, too.

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