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Life be not so short but that there is always time for courtesy.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Neighborhood Target Store: late afternoon

I’m struggling with a medium-sized brown leather ottoman. I’ve gotten it off the top shelf somehow, but like a bozo I have no plan for how to get it into my cart, which already has a laundry hamper in it. I look up and see another customer who’s just entered my aisle. For a moment I’m relieved: all I need is an extra hand for a second, to push in the little compartment that you put babies or purses in.

“Hi, can you help me?” I ask. And then I see that she wishes I hadn’t seen her – she was just about to dash into another aisle and disappear.

She’s clearly not happy, no doubt because she knows that she should help me but doesn’t want to. I, on the other hand, don’t like that I have to ask her for help. I like to do things myself, which is probably why I picked up the silly ottoman in the first place.

She comes over to my cart with a frown on her face. “Can you please lower that?” I ask as I point to the small seat with my elbow. She does as she is asked, as if I’m the last straw in a string of miseries. Then she hurries away without a word or even a look in my direction.

It could be, I guess, that she’s having a really bad day, or that something very upsetting is going on in her life. But the feeling I got was that she just didn’t want to help me, or maybe anyone.

I pause in the aisle and consider the fact that you can learn an awful lot about human nature when you ask a stranger for help. Some people are genuinely helpful. It is their way to extend themselves, like St. Bernard dogs. Others are like turtles; they want to keep their heads in their shells and not get involved. Some are in between and come out to help when they feel like it, like the red fox that is often hard to spot during the day.

I’ve read that one thing people of every culture have built into their DNA is the need for reciprocity, to repay an act of generosity. Maybe we have to be on the receiving end of courtesy before we can give it. Is it possible that no one has ever reached out a helpful hand to this woman? I hope, the next time she’s in need, a total stranger offers help without her even needing to ask.

What goes around comes around. This much I know.