When is it appropriate to interfere in a stranger’s life?

Before we complain about difficulties in our lives, we should first stop and count our blessings.

thappy woman doing grocery shopping

Photo credit: Tetra Images/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

t I did something last year during the holidays that still bothers me. I didn’t interfere in someone else’s life.

t I had just exited my car to go into the A&P when a woman about my age rolled her shopping cart up and started loading her grocery bags into the back of the SUV next to mine. She was chanting, “All they do is eat. It’s the same thing over and over again. It never ends. Every day is the same.” She kept on complaining in the same vein. And she wasn’t pretending to be upset, the way women sometimes complain about how much they have to do but are secretly pleased to be caring for their loved ones. She was angry and stressed and resentful and she was venting to a complete stranger: me.

t I wanted to say, “You are so lucky that you have money to buy food ‘over and over again’ and that you have a nice car to carry that food home for you. You are lucky that you have people waiting at home who love you, who depend on you and are healthy enough to eat ‘over and over again.'” And because I assumed that she was probably talking about a husband and grown kids, I wanted to add, “Don’t you remember why you married that man and had those children? You wanted them. You signed up for this. And you love those hungry people who have come home to visit.”

t But I didn’t say a thing. I chickened out. I only had a second to make the decision and my first thought was that I was being presumptuous. Just because I have published stories about people having epiphanies when a total stranger says the right words to them, just because I have read hundreds of stories from women in similar circumstances, just because I knew I was right, didn’t give me the right to point out the obvious to a stranger.

t I have a front row seat in the lives of our writers and I think I can tell when someone needs an attitude adjustment. But I did that diffident female thing and I kept my mouth shut. The journalist Sydney J. Harris said, “Regret for the things we did can be tempered by time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable.”

t I should have spoken up. Maybe I could have made a difference. Maybe I could have pushed her “reset button” with a few choice words. She might have lashed out at me, and then I would have regretted opening my mouth. But at least I would be regretting that I took action, instead of regretting my inaction.


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