I was coming out of a friend’s apartment in Pittsburgh when I passed a group of strangers lugging an upright piano through the lobby. I figured what the hell and threw my weight in, and we managed to squeeze the thing into the elevator. I bathed in their thank yous and made to leave, but the woman of the group stopped me.
“We prayed that someone would help us, and God delivered you to us. It’s like with everything. You just have to trust in His plan and He’ll send you what you need like He sent you to us.”
This was 2008, years after Hurricane Katrina had burned from me the final vestiges of belief, so I mumbled something and made my escape, but I fumed the whole bus ride home. Here I thought I’d chosen to help, but it turns out God was pulling my strings.
Rain flooded Tulane’s campus the year before, and I was coming down McAlister when I passed a stalled car in 18 inches of water. Students were pushing it, people my age, but it was hard to maneuver, so I helped.
I recognize now what I couldn’t then: it’s not the helping that I like but the praise of strangers. I need that affirmation. I was barefoot in knee-deep water, rolling this car to safety because I unconsciously wanted something in return.
But the others there, the owner and his friends, they cast sidelong glances and muttered about how strange I was, so I fled without a word.
I guess God wasn’t pulling the strings then. He must have frowned on my initiative.
Or maybe the Big Cheese forgot to open their hearts to my help and to my crippling need for praise. Tulane has a largely Jewish student body. Maybe God’s antisemitic.
Or maybe God was pulling my strings and he didn’t let those folks say thanks because he wanted me to feel bad about myself. God thought I was getting too big for my britches. This big head, oh Lord, is what you gave me. Neither I nor the woman who birthed me thank you for it.
Last week Freund von mir and I were helping someone move and we stopped off at a McDonald’s in Neuss halfway through. At the next table was a big group of American women having some kind of meet-up. In the US, I’d never approach a group of strangers like that, but in Germany I go weeks without hearing unaccented English that isn’t mine or Frau’s, and I wanted to figure out why these 20-something Americans would come to McDonald’s instead of something more authentic, but I said nothing.
The moving, the randomness of the encounter–somehow they reminded me of the lobby piano and God’s sacred mission for me (Was that it, God? Are you done with me now?). Suddenly, I was afraid.
Let’s be honest. I talk to random Americans on the streets because I’m lonely and homesick. I’d hate for someone to tell me these feelings are only to serve God’s esoteric purpose for me to perform some minuscule piano-moving function for someone else.
Or, and I’m not sure if this is worse, what if they reacted like the car movers?
So I said nothing. Freund von mir and I ate our lunch and got back to the move. We were late, and much of the furniture had already been unloaded from the truck. We drove 90 minutes through blowing snow to help, but all human effort is relative. Our moving friend expressed his gratitude, but I don’t feel like I deserved it. We only helped 90%. And the thing I crave, the “you’re doing this right” affirmation that I latched onto as a kid when everything else fell apart, it’s elusive. And there’s no sense to it. But I need it. Like any drug, I need it:
The praise of strangers.