Cold Feet and a Cardboard Sign

It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, and I was walking reluctantly through the aisles of the store. Despite my best efforts, the Christmas spirit managed to find a crack in my armor: I couldn’t get the sight of that woman out of my head.

When I pulled into the parking lot, she was standing by the road holding a cardboard sign. A quick glance over my shoulder caught the words “Single Mom” and “Will work for Xmas.”

Completing my purchases, I requested cash back and stuffed it in my jacket pocket where I could reach it easily. I tossed my purchases in the back seat and started the car.

She stood on the snow piled to the side of the road, the sign held high before her face, like a shield to deflect the judgment of affluent shoppers. I pulled up to the light at the edge of the parking lot and pushed the button to open the passenger window. She didn’t move, and I wondered if she noticed me.

I called out, “Merry Christmas,” she lowered the sign and turned her head. Under her hood, her face looked older than I expected. I wondered how many kids she had, and how old they are. She started to climb down the snow bank, moving slowly, limbs nearly paralyzed from the cold. I leaned across the seat and stretched my arm out.

“My feet are so cold,” she said, reaching slowly in to accept my meager offering. I smiled weakly and nodded. The light turned green and I called out “Merry Christmas” again as I pulled away.

This encounter affected me. I spent a lot of time thinking I should have given her more money, wishing that my business had been in a better place. I thought that maybe I should have given her a ride somewhere, bought her some food, done something. But what?

After Christmas dinner, I told the story to a good friend over tea.

Never mind that it was Christmas Eve, why should anyone ever have to stand outside, shivering and shame-filled, hoping for a handout? How did our society fail?

My friend wisely pointed out that we are responsible for our own reality. We can’t control circumstances, but we do choose how we react to them. Our decisions and actions have consequences. This is true for everyone, including Sign Lady.

Is it sad that Sign Lady was begging on Christmas Eve?

Yes.

Should I (or any of the hundreds of other people who drove by that day) done more to help her?

Yes.

Did she have to wait so long to ask for help, or in such a dramatic fashion?

No.

There is a societal failure here, but it isn’t about charity, or lack of opportunity.

The failure is that our educational system doesn’t teach people the difference between self-esteem and pride. People equate being wrong or asking for help with weakness. I know many smart people who mistakenly believe that being wrong is a failure. How many more believe that they should be able to do everything by themselves?

The reality is that asking for help fills a need: Givers need recipients. And you are worthy of help!

I needed a reminder of what it felt like to give. Sign Lady provided that.

I can’t know the circumstances that Sign Lady faced on her journey to the snow bank, but it’s a pretty safe bet that it took her a while to get there. She probably had many opportunities along the way to ask for help. Did a sense of pride hold her back?

Whether at work, school, business, or personal life, have you been reluctant to ask for help? In the last year I have struggled mightily with many areas of my fledgling my business because I thought “I should be able to do this myself.”

While I will probably make that mistake again, I am grateful for the reminders Sign Lady gave me.

  1. Givers need recipients.
  2. You are worth asking for help (and so am I).

I hope it’s easier for you to internalize those lessons than it has been for me.

Dear Lady with the Cold Feet and Cardboard Sign,

I don’t know anything about you, but I thank you. By doing what you did, you gave me a chance to give, something I desperately needed. You also reminded me that it’s OK to ask for help.

I sincerely hope your night and Christmas day got warmer, and that your future is filled with hope.

Now if I could just find a way to ease the guilt about not giving more…

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