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Asking For Help


Back in 2001, while eating dinner with a friend in Seoul, an elderly woman silently walked in and placed a chocolate bar on every table. My friend, in seeing that I was unsure of what was happening, explained that she was a poor grandmother who was looking for income selling chocolate, and that she would come by again in a few minutes to collect money.

My gut feeling was that I didn't want to buy the chocolate, as I was on a tight budget, and truthfully, I thought it was a little brash of her to expect strangers to be paying customers just because she was elderly. In sharing these thoughts with my friend, I saw a pained expression come over his face. After a few seconds of silence, he said: "But she's a grandmother."

Over subsequent conversations, I began to understand that striving to be respectful of and generous to the elderly in Korean culture goes beyond adhering to formalities - there is an unspoken understanding that our elders should be cared for in any way possible as a way of acknowledging the natural order of life.

In spending some time in Korea this past fall, about 22 years after my last stay there, I quickly realized that it was more natural for me to look upon the elderly with the same compassion and respect that my friend spoke of - perhaps, in being 50 years old now, I've come to more fully appreciate the struggles of aging, and the inevitable accumulation of wounds and regrets that occur over many decades of living.

Early on in my stay, in walking through a subway station to switch trains, I saw a grandmother waiting outside of a convenience store, watching for other humans to appear. She couldn't have been more than 4 and a half feet tall, but appeared even shorter because of a severe case of hunchback.

She struggled to walk forward to meet me on my path, and as I leaned down to see what she needed, she asked if I could please buy her a small bottle of soy milk? I took her into that store and found a small refrigerator-like display case that keeps beverages warm. In pulling out a bottle of warm soy milk, I asked her if she needed anything else, to which she looked into my eyes and said a bottle of hot barley tea, please.

As I paid for those beverages, I was about to ask for a bag with handles when the grandmother came up behind me and pulled out an old linen bag with crumpled newspaper inside, telling me not to pay for a bag. We walked out of the store together, and I knew that I wanted to give her whatever cash was in my wallet. In discreetly putting some folded bills into her left hand and telling her to please get something delicious to eat, I found myself feeling enormously grateful that she had the courage to ask me, a stranger, for a bottle of soy milk. Clearly stunned, she looked up and thanked me profusely before we parted ways.

In asking me for help, that grandmother gave me infinitely more than I gave her. As I went about my work in Korea, I regularly wished for more such opportunities to connect with people like her.

Why am I sharing this here? I'm not exactly sure. Maybe it's because there was a point in my life when I wasn't so eager to financially help a complete stranger, and through the course of living, I've come to wish for opportunities where I can make a positive difference to other people's lives, most ideally, where they will never know or feel indebted to me - maybe this transformation in my way of seeing the world will mean something to one person out there.

For the truly decent, my hope is that they come to realize that it's okay to ask for help when they really need it, and that there are people who would be grateful to make a positive difference to them.

As Andre Agassi once observed:

"This is the only perfection there is, the perfection of helping others. This is the only thing we can do that has any lasting meaning. This is why we're here. To make each other feel safe."

Sending love to all,



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