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A Detour on Christmas Eve

Help others, help yourself

I figured out why no one likes me.

There’s a phenomenon called the Ben Franklin Effect: if you ask someone for a favor, they’re apt to like you, even more so than if you do something to help them. I don’t ask for favors. It’s uncomfortable. It makes me feel weak.

The Ben Franklin Effect works by forcing the mind to resolve two opposing ideas. The human brain is unwilling to inconvenience itself without a feeling of affection. You can’t do a favor for someone you don’t like. When you help someone you don’t hold in high regard, your brain assigns meaning to your actions by forcing you to like them. A less scientific, more optimistic explanation may be that humans are predisposed to enjoy helping others. After all, if that weren’t the case, the brain would be more inclined to simply refuse the favor and retain a scorn for the person seeking aid.

It was a dismal, snowy Christmas Eve, and I pretended not hear her.

I was halfway through an arduous 70-mile commute from work with my son next to me. The drive normally took just over an hour, but we’d been on the road all evening. Icy sleet and fog dangerously limited visibility in the dark. Thick snow, uncommon to our mild Southern climate, erased the lanes on the interstate, and traffic crawled along as nervous drivers hovered on the brakes. It was slow-motion chaos.

After skidding on a sheet of ice, I took the next exit to rest my aching eyes and calm my frazzled nerves. I pulled into a gas station, tires spinning. It was only a few steps to the market but, even in my heavy coat, the cold air and harsh wind chilled me by the time I reached the door. Moments later, I headed back to my car with a hot dog for my son and too many ketchup packets to carry. I left a trail of packets in the snow as I cautiously stepped toward the pumps.

“Ma’am, could you help us?”

It was a woman’s voice, and she spoke with urgency. I kept walking. But, by that time, all but two of the ketchup packets had fallen out of my hand. Two packets would never be enough for my hungry, particular preteen. “Ma’am,” she said again. I didn’t turn around for her. I turned around for the ketchup.

As I collected the stray packets, I saw the woman standing in flip flops, gym shorts, and a t-shirt. She had one arm around a boy a few years younger than mine. He was also in shorts, with a thin, dirty blanket around his shoulders. “We broke down over at the Dollar General,” she said, her teeth chattering. “Think you could take us home?” she asked. I hesitated.

My job as an EMT had taught me to be leery of strangers. It had also ingrained me with a responsibility to help those in need.

I felt conflicted.

It saddened me to see them shivering with their feet buried in the deep snow, and I wanted to help. But that deep snow covered all the roads in the county, and my 4-cylinder sedan with slick tires had been performing poorly. My family was waiting at the dinner table. And was it wise to drive into the countryside with strangers? My fellow first responders had endured violence at the hands of seemingly harmless individuals.

It took a superhero to convince me to help them. Spiderman, specifically.

The little boy had a Spiderman shirt on- my son’s favorite character. “You like Spidey, dude?” I asked him. “Yes, ma’am,” he answered sweetly, his breath visible through the spitting snow. “But Ironman has better clothes,” he added earnestly. That did it.

“Looks like you could use some better clothes,” I said. “Alright, I’ll take y’all. Hop in the back.”

They climbed in eagerly and reveled in the warm air. We headed away from the interstate on barely visible backroads, sliding around every minute or so. I glanced at my dying cell phone- a fuse was out in my car and I couldn’t charge it- and wondered how I’d call a tow truck if I slid off the road. The rotting blades of my windshield wipers did little to clear snow and ice.

I peered intently into the dark, trying to stay on the road, wherever it was.

“It’s a right turn, up ahead,” the lady said. The road she’d indicated went up a steep hill. We only made it a few yards. After a few futile burnouts, tires spinning, snow flying, it became clear that this was as far as I could take them. She said they’d walk from there. The little boy hesitated to get out into the cold. I remembered what I had in my trunk. “Hang on,” I said. “I got something for ya.”

A week earlier, I’d spent several hundred dollars on something I thought my son would love: a snowsuit that looked like Ironman’s costume. It turned out my son was embarrassed to wear it. I’d been disappointed. When I took it out, the little boy’s face lit up. I helped him into it, happy the suit was appreciated. The lady wrapped his blanket around her shoulders tightly and thanked me, grimacing in the unforgiving winter air. I handed her a pair of boots, then rummaged in the messy trunk. “I think I’ve got a sweater and hat in here somewhere,” I said as she started to walk away.

“That’s okay,” she said. “This is plenty.”

She did not seek to take advantage of others. I don’t ask for favors, but I dish them out often and have been exploited before. If I kept on giving, I thought, people would surely like me; that’s not necessarily wrong. It’s quite reasonable, though, that the opposite is also true, that asking for what you need garners respect.

Asking someone for a favor lets them know you believe they’re capable enough to help you.

It’s a compliment. Maybe that’s why I felt affection and concern for the pair by the time they trudged off into the snow.

I got behind the wheel and felt the comforting rush of warm air from the vents. “Where are they even going?” my son asked. Good question. The road ahead of them stretched through farmland- not a house in sight. I ran after them. I took off my coat and gave it to the lady. It didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. “Thanks,” she said. “And Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas,” I replied, then looked at the boy. “Merry Christmas, Ironman.”

As my son and I headed back to the interstate, a tow truck with flashing lights thundered by. I was glad it didn’t have to come for us. I felt grateful for all I had. I was happy, a rare emotion in 2020 for me and many others.

I didn’t feel proud; I felt valued.

That lady had believed I was kind enough to help and capable enough to pull it off. So who did whom a favor that Christmas Eve? The lady and her boy helped me every bit as much as I helped them. It’s a testament to humans’ innate desire to nurture one another. In 2021, I won’t hesitate to ask for help, because no one can truly succeed independently. We are a species programmed for cooperation.

Samantha Marin
Samantha Marin
Read next: 'Chocolate Kisses'
Samantha Marin

I’m lucky to have an opportunity to share my writing here and enjoy reading others’ work. I’m into outdoor sports, all things healthcare, film and theater that stirs the soul, that Mom life, and cooking creatively with few ingredients.

See all posts by Samantha Marin

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