I took the afternoon off work and headed up to meet my friend Clemetin at the Social Security office some miles from where I live.
Clemetin had received a notice from Social Security stating that his monthly benefits were being cut and giving him 30 days to appeal. But having spent many years in prison, Clemetin has an aversion to people in government offices. He’s quick to anger when they seem to disrespect him. And he’s quite sure that’s what they’ll do. So I offered to go with him to appeal the reduction of benefits.
We met at the Social Security office, took a number and waited a bit before being called in. We sat down with a woman case worker and I explained the problem. Clemetin leaned over and whispered to me that he was anxious.
But the woman was both respectful and helpful. And the outcome was good. The reduction of his benefits was an error. And we learned that Clemetin would qualify for reduced fares on the MTA, which will be a great help to him.
As we walked back to the subway together, Clemetin turned to me and said:
Andrea, I really hope that one day I can repay you for all of your help.
As I thought about how to respond, I realized that he has already payed me back and then some.
Payback in the form of a Profound Lesson
Getting to know Clemetin has taught me something important about life.
I’ve had a chance to see first hand what it’s like to have severely limited options in life. What it’s like to live in fear. What it’s like not to be able to manage the complex systems that it takes to live in a big city like New York.
I’ve learned that just because people have made poor choices doesn’t mean that they are bad people. I’ve learned that fear often masquerades as belligerence. I’ve learned how important it is to have a support system of people who will help you out when you have nothing.
Clemetin has given me much more than I have given him.
He has opened my heart. He has made me more compassionate — not because I know fully what it is to live without privilege — but because I now know not to be so quick to think poorly of people who behave in ways I don’t understand.
He has helped me see more fully the immense and unearned privilege that has propelled and enabled my life.
Thank You, Clemetin
You have not only helped me be a better person, but you have opened a little window for my many friends and relatives who have met you, too — and perhaps you’ve even made a difference for my readers, who have gotten to know you through this blog.
You have contributed to our lives more than you will ever know.
How Do You Think about Payback?
Who are the people in your life that you help? What do you think of as the payback? Do you keep track, tallying favors? Or do you think of it in a different, more fundamental way? The next time you do something nice for someone, consider what the real return might be.
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