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Why I Keep My Heart Open Even Though I’ve Been Deceived

“You may be deceived if you trust too much, but you’ll live in torment if you don’t trust enough.” ~Frank Crane

I’m heading home with a latte in hand, listening to This American Life through my headphones when a woman sitting on a bench outside the café waves me down. She looks like she’s in her sixties with grayish brown bangs and a worn pink winter jacket. I pull my headphones out of my ears.

“Excuse me, can you tell me how far it is from here to 77 Westwood?” she asks. I take my phone out, Google map the address, and see that it’s thirty-seven minutes away in the suburbs.

“Aw, shit,” she mumbles. Spit collects at the corner of her mouth. Her teeth are yellowed and I wonder if she’s a smoker.

“What’s wrong? Where do you have to be?” My eyes rest on two leg braces leaning on the bench beside her that I hadn’t noticed before.

“My handicap transport cancelled on me at the last minute and you have to book those things like three or four days in advance, so now I’m stuck here and I need to get home.”

I ask if there is anyone that can pick her up. She shakes her head and proceeds to ask me, “How come people can be so mean?”

Apparently the person she asked for help right before me had sworn at her and told her to leave him alone, which shook up whatever faith she had in humanity.

With a heavy heart, she asks me questions I am not sure I have answers to like, why don’t people have more compassion? I can feel my heart inching out toward her. She has spoken to something in me that feels compelled to reassure her that not everyone is cold and heartless. There are good people in this world and it is important that she knows that.

Pointing to her legs she says, “This could happen to anyone.” She recounts how she had an accident but would do anything if she could just walk again to get from the bench where we were to the home where she longed to get back to.

In the five minutes I stand beside her this is what I learn: She’s getting her PhD in Child Psychology at McGill. She once had a diplomatic passport because her father used to work for the Prime Minister. She traveled all around the world with her parents and lived in Japan for many years. She is half Greek and half eastern European.

“My grandmother used to make the best gefilte fish.” Because it turns out her grandmother used to cook for the Steinbergs­, a prominent Jewish family that founded grocery store chains in Quebec in the early 1900’s. At this point I take out my wallet and look at the two $20 bills lying in there side by side.

I start my day with a simple prayer that Marianne Williamson taught me from the book A Course in Miracles. I ask the universe, “Where would you have me go? What would you have me do? What would you have me say, and to whom?”

Whoever I encounter that day or whatever happens, I believe in some way I am led to them. So for whatever reason, this woman sitting outside the café was put in my path.

When I hand her the bills she takes my hands in hers, and they are warm and soft. “God bless you,” She says. I look into her pale blue, kind eyes and am reminded of my grandfather’s eyes. A survivor of the holocaust, he had eyes that were deep wells of untold pain and stories and kindness.

I’m happy to prove that there are good people out there, that the universe is a kind place.

She tells me I did a “mitzvah,” clearly familiar with Jewish vernacular. I ask her how to say thank you in Japanese and she proceeds to delight me with a few sentences. I say goodbye and head home to tell my husband Dan about the woman on the bench I just met.

The story could have ended there, but it’s what happened the following day that threw me off balance.

I was walking back from doing some errands when a woman caught my eye. She was sitting on a ledge outside the YMCA talking to another woman standing beside her. I positioned myself so that the sitting woman couldn’t see me, but I could still overhear their conversation. It went something like this.

“I’m sorry but my transport cancelled and I need to get home. Can you check on your phone how far it is?”

My heart dropped and I could feel my face getting hot. I stood there for a moment in shock watching as stranger after stranger continued to stop for her, wanting to help.

I went home and recounted the story to Dan. As I spoke, I felt my emotions transform from anger to utter confusion. I asked myself, was she really disabled? Was she really a student? What was true and what was just a story to pull at the hearts of strangers passing by? Did it even matter? I wasn’t sure.

Tears streamed down my cheeks as I spoke. I suddenly felt naïve and foolish. “How do I respond to those in need from now on?” I asked him. “How do I know who really needs my help? Do I close my heart in protection? Do I stop giving because maybe I’ll be fooled again? Do I confront her?”

Dan held me and assured me I didn’t have to close up. He told me that there was no harm in giving to her. I didn’t put myself in danger. I didn’t get pulled into a thousand dollar scam. I lost forty dollars to someone who probably needed it a lot more than I did, and maybe next time I wouldn’t be fooled again.

After sleeping on it, I realized that what angered me most was the feeling of being deceived. I hated feeling so vulnerable and pulled into someone’s story that I couldn’t distinguish truth from scam.

Every day in my work I hear my client’s stories of pain and struggle, and in order to empathize with them, a part of me needs to feel into that part of myself that they are struggling with. And what I realized was that, while I have a gift for empathy and a soft spot for people’s vulnerability, it can also be my kryptonite.

If I’m not aware of the shadow side of the innocent part of me that wants to be helpful, I can easily be taken advantage of.

The innocent is an archetype that we all have as children. We see it in every Disney movie when the film begins with a child, an orphan– someone who naively steps out alone into the forest to greet the animals without knowing who is a threat and who they can trust, which might lead them to befriend a wolf who lures them into the dark forest by pretending to be a grandmother who looks shockingly like a wolf.

The innocent is the part of us who is naturally open and trusts that people are who they say they are. It is the part of us that might give another chance to a date whose been treating the waitress poorly, or excuse the behavior of someone who serves our own interests. But maybe we should take Maya Angelou’s words to heart, “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

Once you know that you’ve been tricked, it’s natural to feel angry, and there is always the possibility of becoming cynical.

I could have gotten mad and, in the extreme case, called the cops on her, or I could have warned all the other strangers not to approach her because she was a liar and a swindler. It is far easier to react out of fear or injured pride and exact our revenge.

We promise ourselves we will never be swindled again—“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” If we start to believe that everyone is motivated by self-interest or that everyone is out to get us, we risk closing our hearts instead of opening up to compassion.

What I learned was even after all that, the woman on the bench still deserved my compassion. I still had the privileged position of being able to walk away, come back home, and have dinner with my loving husband.

I had a choice whether to give to her at all. No one would be the wiser if I chose to walk away. But in practicing being a loving and compassionate person, I learned that I want to give without attachment to how it will be received and without expectation that I am owed something in return.

I can’t control how the money is spent once I choose to give it, and if I wanted to do that, I could have bought her a meal instead.

I don’t think it is my business to judge anyone else’s life and circumstances. Instead, I want to be able to give and let go, and walk away with my heart a little lighter. Let go of needing to hear a thank you. Let go of the gesture being appreciated. Let go of the attachment to a particular outcome. Let go of judgment. Let go of control.

I know that the only thing I can ever be in charge of is myself and my own response—my thoughts, my words, my actions, and the decision to show up every day and try and keep this heart of mine open when it is so much easier, and more tempting, to keep it closed.

Have you ever been deceived? Have you been more discerning since then? What’s helped you hold on to your compassion?

About Myrite Rotstein

Fullness Coach and Pattern Disruptor Myrite Rotstein helps women stop filling up with food, people pleasing, and self-doubt and learn to fill themselves up from the inside out, so they can stop dimming their light and remember their ‘nuf'ness.’ She leads monthly Fullness Circles to help women elevate one another, speak their truth, and spark connection. Visit her at myriterotstein.com.

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  • Mohit Gupta

    Nice post Myrite. In reality, there are too many life situations which follow the vicious cycle of doing-expecting-getting rewarded/not rewarded. As a matter of fact, the compassion we so often talk about, is also driven by our feeling of happiness. True Compassion, true love is something to be learnt from nature.
    To break free from this cycle is to deeply understand the futility of external control. As you rightly mentioned, letting go is an art,a skill which needs to be practiced and understood. One more thing I would love to add is the ability to stay in the moment completely aware. That way, one would hardly give any importance to the brainy mess that so often hampers the correct line of thinking.

  • Emily Norton

    I loved your article and have had a similar experience happen to me earlier in my life. A quote I have posted on my bedroom wall says “aren’t we all beggars?” – it reminds me that I too have undeservedly benefitted from someone’s kindness and giving in my life. Many of the privileges I have in my life haven’t always come on my merits alone, so I give knowing that it’s doing my part to give back. I’m still of course thoughtful about how I give and aware, but I know I can’t always control the outcome. And regardless of what they do with it, I still give because I figure it’s my heart and intent that matter most.

  • Courtney

    Your heart and spirit were in the right place, that my friend, means the most. Keep giving when the spirit hits you, no matter what. You have a stout heart, and the world needs you and everyone else with hearts such as yours. There is no wrong way of doing right. Huuuuugggg.

  • mamak1118

    Not that I would have been brave enough to do this, but I wish you had gently approached her to find out the real story. What parts were true? What did she REALLY need? I’d be interested to find out what is behind her deception.
    I, too, have been scammed and I felt very ashamed to have been duped. But I’ve always felt that what you give with a good heart comes back to you in one way or another. You’ve already been blessed with the (initial) feeling of doing something good, a learning experience, and an interesting topic to write about, if nothing else. You did the right thing. 🙂

  • Yes, deception, including self-deception are part of life. I’m spontaneous and respond in the moment trusting my heart’s wisdom as to best course of action, or non-action. Learn to never take anything personally. Thanks!

  • Firefly10

    As an outreach worker, similar situations are part of each work day. From a person fabricating a story about needing a bus ticket to transport her Mother’s ashes, to the more common ‘lost my backpack with everything in it’. I have had to fine tune my sense of discernment and fact-finding questions. But, at the end of the day, if our non-profit has helped even ONE person that legitimately needs help, it’s worth it. The negative stuff belongs to the person living the lie. I constantly remind myself that being in survival mode changes people, too.

  • BellaTerra66

    We don’t have to close our hearts, but we don’t have to check our brains at the door each morning and become big fools either. While that may seem cold and harsh — I have given a lot of money to homeless organizations, to individual homeless people, and I have volunteered FOR YEARS — about two decades — with homeless organizations. I don’t mind being ‘duped’ nearly as much as I mind seeing the same people, day after day, at the same spot, with a baby and/or a dog — especially in summer. I simply call the police.

  • Marguerite

    A similar thing happened to me. A story about bag having been stolen and bus money home needed. I realized at the time the story did not add up. However, I did give the man money for coffee and a sandwich. He clearly was in need of something warm and he must have been in a worse situation than I am in to have the need to fabricate this story. I only hope that I never find myself in a situation like that as many who have a roof over their heads and enough to eat do not realize how life can take these things away at the drop of a hat without it actually being your fault or anything you can do about it. I would hope that would I ever find myself in such a situation, strangers would show compassion and not rejection.

  • Myrite Rotstein

    Thanks for writing Marguerite. I’m glad I’m not alone in feeling this way, and it’s helpful to remember to choose compassion over rejection. <3

  • Myrite Rotstein

    Hi Courtney! Thank you that means a lot. <3 Love that "there is no wrong way of doing right" appreciate the hugs!!!!! xoxo

  • Myrite Rotstein

    Thank you Mohit for adding in that staying in the moment ability of being completely aware, which is what I call being mind-full.

  • Myrite Rotstein

    Wow what a powerful quote to share! There is something there about having others be mirrors for us of our own unmet needs, of our own desires- so true! Whenever we have a strong reaction to another person, I like to think of it as our shadow popping up to ask, “what in them is in you?” Whatever it is that irritates, annoys us- is where we most need to ask, when we can be that way too in our lives, otherwise we wouldn’t have such a strong reaction to them. Since we are all connected and one, we only see in others what is contained in ourselves or else we wouldn’t even notice it! Thank you for sharing Emily!

  • Myrite Rotstein

    Thanks. I was not brave enough to ask, but I also did not want to “confront” her as I sensed she wasn’t mentally well, and she was doing the best she could under the circumstances so she could make it in the world. I felt that it was not my place to judge or understand, that is her business or the divine’s business- and I thought my only business was to be clear on my intention for giving. Was it to be patted on the back? Rewarded? or would I have given to her even if she never knew it was coming from me? Would I still give next time knowing it was not going towards the place she said it would? All these questions were perplexing and forced me to get clear with my own intention behind giving.

  • Myrite Rotstein

    Yes! Never take anything personally is a really good piece of advice that takes practice. But really, this wasn’t about me, it was about what she brought up in me to get this line of questioning going and find out what was behing my intention of giving in the first place.

  • Myrite Rotstein

    Hi BellaTerra, I’m curious what it means for you to see the same people day after day at the same spot? It sounds like you have give a lot and volunteered a lot for year but curious what is the distinction for you between being ‘duped” and becoming a ‘fool’ just want to understand your perspective a little more.

  • Myrite Rotstein

    Yes Firefly, discernment is a word I use a lot- and I agree, and ultimately we can’t know the inside out of everyone’s story, all we can know is what they tell us- which is why I think it’s true that if you help even one person that legitimately needs it, it’s worth it and that if the person is lying- that is on them, not on you. well put.

  • BellaTerra66

    Simply not interested in getting in a long discussion with you. I think I was pretty clear. If you have any questions — sorry, life is too short for us to do this here and not face to face — which is impossible. I will you well.