I grew up in the area of Syracuse, New York. It is located just east of the Great Lakes. This causes “Lake Effect” snow in the winter, giving the city an awesome average snowfall of more than 10 feet. Suffice it to say, slippery roads are pretty common in the winter. When I was in my late teens my roommate and I were driving home on a pitch-black wintry evening, and we encountered a car on a lonely section of road. It had slid off into the ditch. The car was canted sideways with one rear wheel off the ground. Being well brought up and burly teenagers, we stopped to render assistance. We found a woman alone inside the car who appeared to be in her early to mid 30’s. She was well and truly stuck, with a long cold walk ahead of her on a shoulder-less country road to a phone booth. My friend and I offered to try to push her back onto the road, a task which we were successful at.
The obviously relieved woman offered to give us $20 for our trouble. This was a lot of money back then, probably the price of the tow truck. At the time, it would have taken me almost 6 hours of work to earn that much. We turned her offer down with words to the effect of “Oh it was no trouble” or some such thing. To this day I don’t think I have ever seen a more crestfallen individual. That reaction is why this life event has stuck so strongly in my memory.
As we drove away, I puzzled over her reaction. I knew without a doubt that she was extremely grateful for the assistance. For us it was no big deal, but it was a really big deal to her. I then realized that we were happy to give, it felt good, but we had not given her the opportunity to give in return. She drove away feeling deeply in our debt with no way to return the favor. Paying it forward and random acts of kindness were not “things” yet. We hadn’t even exchanged names.
I’ve since realized that sometimes the best gift you can give is the gift of gracious receiving. Have you had the experience of someone handing you a nicely wrapped Christmas gift and your first thought is “I didn’t get them anything!” Is your reaction embarrassment? Do you say things like “You shouldn’t have.”? You have a chance to give back right then and there. How about a huge smile and opening the gift like a 5 year old would? How about adding bright-eyed thanks and a big hug (if appropriate)? You not only walk away with a cool gift, you walk away with the glow of making someone else happy. How cool is that?
Chair, Board of Trustees