As I stopped on a New York City sidewalk to take a photo, a man approached me. “Hey, sir!” he said. “You from around this area?”
I scanned the area quickly and saw no danger, but I thought I knew where this was headed. “No,” I answered, trying to dismiss him. He waved a small cellphone at me, his wrist gyrating emphatically. “My phone is dead,” he said, his tone hinting that he didn’t believe himself. “Can you help me?”
“Sorry, no, I can’t help you,” I responded, twisting my shoulders and picking up my bag to move into the stream of passers-by. His face contorted and he began to walk past me. “You ain’t sorry bout nuffin!” he reproached, as our backs turned to face each other.
Many years ago, my friend Kelly and I were walking together late one summer evening. A woman approached us, distraught and vulnerable. “Can you help me?” she pleaded. She had an elaborate set of problems. “I’ve locked my purse and keys in my car,” she explained helplessly. “I asked the police to open it, but they said they’re not allowed to. It’s about to get towed, but if I pay the towing company fifty dollars they’ll take it to the lot instead and they have a technician who’ll open it. But I don’t have fifty dollars. Can you help?” she repeated.
I hesitated and Kelly’s face sent me a warning message. This was a setup. “Wait just a moment,” I said, stepping aside with Kelly. “She’s lying,” Kelly whispered to me. “I know,” I responded. “But what if she’s not? Is fifty dollars the price of no regrets?”
I played along with the ruse, handed the cash to the tow-truck driver with a glad heart, and we, too, turned our backs to each other in a gesture that signaled finality. Two of us had hope for all of humanity at that moment, but two more must inevitably have lacked some measure of faith in their own.
As the years tilt past, opportunities to examine my conscience turn and return. Sometimes I walk the extra mile, sometimes I keep my own counsel and part ways with nothing but a wish that each of us gets what we need, not what we deserve.
But the man on the sidewalk today was right, and I learned something from him: I’m not sorry. I wasn’t sorry that I used $50 to reinforce someone’s belief that crime pays. And I’ve never been sorry any of the dozens of other times: the times I took the homeless men to dinner or bought them groceries instead of giving them cash, the times I knelt in prayer with them, the times I walked past and ignored them.
I’ve always thought I never lied to the people who’ve asked me for help. When I said I didn’t have any cash, it was always true. When I said I couldn’t help them, it was true. But when I said I’m sorry, it was a lie. And I always lied.
Today I learned that if I want to tell the truth, I need to let me yes be yes, and my no be no. Adding an apology is a lie. No is a complete sentence.