Earlier today, I made a concerted effort to recall a time in my life when I felt alone, and it seemed I knew no one to call, and someone—a stranger—extended me an unexpected compliment as we passed each other. Or someone held the elevator when they saw me rushing to make it before it closed. Or the commuter who understands what it’s like to try to cross a busy street to make it to the other side, so they make a way. I tried to remember if there was a time when I wished so deeply that someone—anyone—would see how afraid I was.
Perhaps it’s unnatural to get too caught up or involved with strangers one-on-one. It takes Orlando of which 49 people the world lost that day; 9/11, which shattered our idea of feeling safe and shocked us out of our complacency. Nine-11 and Orlando are widely exposed heart-pounding moments, similar to the butterfly effect: a flapping of its wings in one part of the world and miraculously that tiny, tender flutter reaches another part of the world and creates this undefinable thing; and this is solely because a butterfly flapped its wings. Princess Diana, John Kennedy, Jr.–the entire world stops for these blind-sided moments in our culture, and there’s this collective holding the breath, and we all share this down-deep melancholy.
I recall, while living in New York, having this conversation about how, when you live in New York, it just becomes a part of your identity to be rude! This person responded back to me with, ‘If I said excuse me every single time I bumped into someone or knocked against someone, I’d be doing it all damn day!’ While living in New York, I thought I was quite mindful not to fall into that same way of being. Oddly, though, within days of relocating back to L.A., I didn’t take the time to really hear this woman as she said to me, a stranger to her, “What a beautiful day.” First–and it doesn’t excuse–I was in a hurry; and two, I shrugged in the way people who don’t give a damn do, and kept on walking.
No longer living on the East Coast close to eight years now, I’ve softened. And today, as I made my way down a street in West Los Angeles, I slowed my pace to see whether an elderly woman, wheelchair bound, would be sitting on a patio adjacent to a small bookstore. And she was. I have never stopped to talk with this woman. I don’t know her name. But I see her several times a week. She sits in a wheelchair with personal belongings in chic tote bags that are at her immediate reach. She even has an iPhone! I couldn’t guess her age, and I couldn’t know her story without sitting down and listening to what she might have wanted to share with me. But I do sense that she’s outlived friends, and family might be sparse. Consistently in this blog I have demonstrated my beliefs, and I trust in my core that we have an idea—provided we’re even remotely paying attention—when someone could use a smile, a polite hello.
Simple gestures don’t make us lose even a second in our day. We can recognize when it might be a good time to show empathy in a moment when we detect a stranger’s life has met some stuff no one ever thinks it’s necessary to plan for. The woman who learned she has Stage IV breast cancer is likely to be too devastated about the path her life has just taken to acknowledge sincere praise on her unique style. Or the man who’s spent the better part of his life working for a company that is now in the midst of downsizing and he finds he’s unemployed but cannot afford to retire might not be present enough for any kindness you might throw his way. Sill–and trust me on this–something small has its own quiet influence, even if it doesn’t kick in right away. And the receiver of someone’s kindness, later on, will have no clue how or why his mood has softened.
So I always smile at this elderly woman wheelchair bound. I never know what her day has been like. I simply extend a broad smile that is purposefully sincere, and I say, Hello, how are you today? This woman always smiles back at me as if she’d looked forward to the moment all day. Her hellos always accompany a kind of girlish laughter. She is always open to my modest connection. In a way that I am not quite sure of, she adds something to what’s left of my day. I like speaking to her. The idea that I have done something so simple that made a difference in someone’s day means a lot to me. Especially to someone whose connection to others might be limited. I sense this elderly woman spends a good amount of time alone.
If you asked, say 20 random people, if they could do anything to contribute to the world being a better place, more than half would say, What do I need to do? Gandhi said, “We but mirror the world.” With only four months left in this year, it could be our challenge: to consider working a benevolent muscle. We can be a part of the effect, not the cause. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t bemoan how our society is at the very brink of losing its moral compass. So we should collectively make an effort to be that change we claim we genuinely want to see happen in our amazing universe!