The kindness of strangers

Mostly I have my hands full just trying to get done all I need to get done on any given day, but I also think about what good I can do in the world, and what my legacy will be. I live a very small life, and it seems to me most of the time that anything I am able to do wouldn’t make much of an impact. When I’m feeling low and the responsibility of my current life weighs heavy on my shoulders, I get discouraged about the future, and I feel powerless to change anything; certainly not any of the seemly intractable problems facing our world today. It’s easy to fall into that trap; after all, everywhere we look lately there is really bad news.

And then, something small happens, the jaws of the trap are pried open, and I’m reminded that anything is possible. Most importantly, I’m reminded that I can’t do it all myself, nor do I have to, but I can do more.

Monday winter reclaimed December in Michigan. We had warm temperatures and no rain or snow last week – no white Christmas (fine with me). Unusual, but not unheard of, and we all knew it would end. We got about 6″ of wet heavy snow on Monday, and the city plows were out working hard all day. It stopped snowing for a bit around 5 pm, so I decided to go out and clear out the driveway before the next round. I don’t have a snowblower, so I started working on the mountainous snow boulders blocking the end of the driveway – courtesy of the plows – with a shovel. When I tried to break up and move the first one, I knew I was going to be out there a long time.

Just after I started, however, a man in a maroon pickup pulled up and signaled for me to move out of the way. He dropped his plow and cleared all that big heavy stuff out of the mouth of the drive with a couple of swipes. I waved and smiled and mouthed THANK YOU! He smiled, nodded, and drove off. The whole thing took about 3 minutes.

Just that easy. I have no idea who he is. With that one kind act, in that short period of time, he changed my life. Suddenly, unexpectedly, what I thought was going to happen – an hour or more of hard physical labor in the cold and wet – didn’t happen. It changed in an instant from an anticipated difficult experience into something wonderful. Not only did he make something physically easier for me – spared my back and shoulders – but he lifted my spirits with that plow, and opened the world up to me again.

It’s easy to get cynical and to believe the worst about people and their motivations and actions. It’s easy to lose hope in the future and in our ability to solve problems or effect change. On the face of it, honestly, the future looks bleak. I get very discouraged sometimes.

That man reminded me that ultimately, one-on-one, it doesn’t matter who we are so much as what we are. I don’t know anything about that man except that he has a maroon truck and that he was kind. I don’t know his name, or where he lives, what he does for a living, what his political or spiritual beliefs are, what his sexual orientation is, where he’s from, or whether he is a cat or a dog person. What mattered yesterday was that he had the opportunity to be kind and he acted on it.

He made a difference.

It’s not the big things. It’s not doing the “right” things or what society tells us we should be doing. It’s not a bright shiny life on Instagram or Facebook. It’s not friends or “Likes” or the newest, latest, coolest. It’s not all happy, smiling and lovely. It’s not all gloom and doom, either. The world is complex, and so are human beings. There are no easy answers.

But sometimes it is simple. Ultimately, it’s not who we are that makes the difference, but what we are. I have a limited realm of influence and not a lot of money, but I can be kind. It’s a decision in any given minute. I can be kind to myself, to my mom, my co-workers, and to strangers if given the opportunity. That’s really the message of Christmas we take into this new year, this new decade:

Make room for the gift.

That’s the challenge. Open to others. If you are able, give them what they need.  Sometimes that’s something you can touch, sometimes it’s time, sometimes it’s just a smile.

Smile. Let someone know simply that you see them and that you wish them well.

I can do all that. I don’t always, sadly, but I can. I want to be better at it, so I have to keep practicing. You only see these opportunities if you are paying attention in the moment. That’s the key, and that’s what makes it hard. So hard. The future is exciting, and the past is comforting. The only thing that’s real and important, though, is now.

For me, this year, this decade: In each moment, do what you can, be what you can.

Thank you, sir.

 

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