Which Will You Be?

The other morning, when I attempted to start the family van, it hesitated and then stalled.

I did not panic. It does this sometimes. One thing you learn quickly as a mother of a large family with a not-so-large income is that it is necessary to be patient with your vehicles. And your appliances. These machines have personalities and, dependent upon them as we are, we must learn to accommodate occasional idiosyncrasies.

My washing machine, for example, has a charming little quirk where it likes to stop mid-cycle. Full of clothes and sudsy water, it pauses for a rest. No worries, though. I need only lift the lid and slam it closed again just so for it to restart and complete the cycle. Sometimes it needs two restarts and, loath to pay a repair bill at the moment, I am happy to oblige.

The van, though, has her own set of issues. If it’s especially cold or humid, or if it has been raining, she doesn’t like to start. When you turn the ignition, she lets out a blood-curdling screech instead. Other times, she starts but then quickly loses interest in running and lets herself fall silent.

That’s the mood she was in on this particular morning.

My oldest daughter, due at the stable where she works in just 15 minutes, threw her hands in the air. “Not this again! I’m going to be la-aaaaaate!” she moaned.

I tried again, and the van started this time. Hesitantly, but it started. I hurriedly put it in reverse and backed out of our long driveway. The van cooperated. Just long enough for us to back into the road — completely blocking it — before it died again. There was no restarting this time. Only that terrible screeching.

We were stuck. And the road was blocked. That’s when I found out that if you are a 15-year-old girl, the only thing worse than the annoyance of being late for work is the embarrassment of being seated in a stalled vehicle that is blocking the road.

Ours is a quiet country road, but on this particular day, a car showed up within seconds. An old man was driving. I made my way quickly to his car in order to explain.

“I’m sorry,” I told him, “My van died and I can’t get it to start back up.”

He squinted out his window at me. “You need some help,” he declared, and immediately exited his car.

He was not a big man. His shoulders were hunched and head was bald. As a midday sun blazed overhead, he hiked up his trousers, wiped his shining forehead with a handkerchief, and sized up the situation.

“I’ll need to push,” he determined and plodded toward the rear of the van.

This would not do. I had a husband at work just a few minutes away, I told him. Let me call him to help.

Before he could answer, though, a second car appeared on the scene. The driver this time was a middle-aged man. An irritated middle-aged man. He looked over the situation, and without making eye contact with any of us, began to maneuver his car around the van. He drove off the road and came precariously close to the front end of my vehicle when the old man stopped him.

“Hey, you there!” he called out and began to shuffle toward the man’s car. “Why don’t you stop a minute? This lady could use some help.”

“Help?” the man repeated, blinking as if he had no idea what that word could possibly mean.

I took this opportunity to leap into the driver’s seat of the van and give it one last try. It started.

“It’s alright, thank you!” I called to both men. The middle-aged man drove off immediately, and the older man smiled and wiped his brow one last time before waving and getting back into his car.

I pulled my van back into the driveway and contemplated what I had just witnessed. The two men I had encountered were familiar personality types to me. Familiar, because I have been both of them before. Yes, I have been both an eager, thoughtful, helpful person and a too-busy-to-stop, annoyed, self-absorbed person. Depending on the circumstances, I figure I could be either of them at any given time.

But which does Christ call us to be?

Part of what I appreciated about my encounter that morning was the way the older man called out the younger one for his lack of concern for another’s need.

“This lady could use some help.”

We foster a careless culture when so few of us are willing to do what that man did — tell someone else what they ought to do. I wonder what kind of difference it might make if more of us embraced the role of Old Man Boss and were willing to tell others that it’s not okay to be selfish. That, indeed, they do have an obligation to serve others.

On a day shortly after the van incident, I was exiting the supermarket when a case of soda fell from the cart of the woman in front of me. Though the case broke open and several cans rolled across the floor, the woman did not notice and continued on her way to the parking lot.

Two teen boys noticed the mishap, but instead of helping, laughed at the scene. They stepped out of the way of rolling cans and elbowed each other saying “Whoa!” and “Dude, look out!”

I caught their eyes. Pushing my own loaded cart, I asked, “Did those just fall from that woman’s cart?”

I didn’t need to say anything more.

“Uhhh, yeah . . .” they replied, blushing. They hurried to gather the cans and chase the woman into the parking lot.

“Thank you,” I told them minutes later as I loaded groceries into the back of my van, “For doing the right thing.”

May God give me grace to always do the same.


Danielle Bean, a mother of eight, is Editorial Director of Faith & Family. She is also author of My Cup of Tea: Musings of a Catholic Mom (Pauline 2005) and Mom to Mom, Day to Day: Advice and Support for Catholic Living (Pauline 2007). Her blog is a source of inspiration, encouragement, and support for Catholic women of all ages and life stages.

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