It's difficult to know when to trust in human nature, and when to let fear override that inclination. This is especially true when we're facing a stranger on a dark night who needs help. My husband and I were in that situation recently when a young woman and her daughter came to our house to pick up something they had purchased from us, and then knocked on our door a few minutes later to inform us that her car had stalled just beyond our house.
In some situations, this would have been an immediate alarm to run in the opposite direction or shut the door firmly on the intruder: when someone knocks on your car window in a dark parking lot; when a person on the side of the road tries to flag you down on a deserted street in the dead of night; when someone shows up unexpected and asks if they can come inside and use your phone. Those are typically "hair on the back of the neck" moments. In this case, we chose to believe what she was saying and invited her in.
Once inside, she informed us that the person she called for help didn't answer and that she believed she was out of gas. My husband offered to get a gas can we keep in the garage and take her to a station about a mile away.
As he left with her and her daughter tucked away in his car, I had a moment of fear: what if her cry for help and even the presence of her daughter was just a ruse to rob him and steal his car? Luckily, my fears were unwarranted because he returned home safely a short while later. The gas had worked, and the young woman and her daughter had driven happily away. She also sent me a text later in the evening expressing how grateful she was for our help and repeated the message of thanks the next day.
It feels wonderful to be able to offer a kind and helpful hand to a stranger in need and, in this case at least, I am glad that trust won out over fear. I guess all we can do in these circumstances is to weigh the odds, listen to that inner alarm voice, and make a decision. Luckily on that particular night, the inner alarm was silent, and we were right to decide to help her. I wish it was always correct to offer a helping hand to a stranger on a dark night in this world. Luckily, there are still some times when it is.
The other day I stopped at my local Kroger to pick up a few items on my way home. Since I had walked there, I only tucked enough money in my pocket to cover what I intended to buy. When the sale rang up, the total was 11 cents over what I had to spend, so I told the gentleman who was monitoring the self-check out lanes that I was short by that amount and wanted to return an item. He nodded and said "I have eleven cents" and proceeded to place the coins in the slot to complete my purchase.
The whole way home I couldn't shake the idea that I needed to return that money to him. I mean, it was only 11 cents, but I felt bad about taking his money. I knew that customers often leave change in the self checkout machines because I had been told that more than once by cashiers, but it was also possible that the money came from the store employee. Yes, it was "only 11 cents", but who knows what that meant to him. A few days later, I was back in the store and was able to hand over the 11 cents to the employee. He looked at me with surprise, but his friendly smile told me that he remembered and was grateful for my return.
What this experience made me think of was the "pay it forward" phenomenon that I have read about where someone pays for a meal or a cup of coffee for the person in line behind them, who in turn extends the same gesture to the person behind them, and so on. Any gesture of kindness, whether it amounts to a penny or a hundred dollars, encourages like behavior. In my book, that's worth a lot because in this time of confusion and animosity and renewed disparity any example of the kindness of strangers gives me hope that the basic goodness that exists in most people will not be lost.
So today when I overheard a woman in front of me at the local drug store apologize because she didn't have enough money to pay for her purchases, the "11 cents experience" came to my mind. That made it easy to reach into my own pocket and extend the needed money to her. Pay it forward and backward and sideways, my friends. The return is invaluable.
My intent has been to post a "kindness of strangers" blog once a month on this website, but a topic for January eluded me. I didn't want to create a post simply for the sake of filling space, so I've been waiting for something to move me to want to write. It finally happened this week, but not in the way I would have imagined. A friend passed away Monday. She wasn't a "close" friend in the usual way that term is defined. I knew Alma Berne from my exercise class at the Green Hills Y. At first, I thought she was a grouchy scrooge. She used to come up behind me while I was fitting in some weight training prior to our class and growl at me for doing more than I had to do. After a few of these encounters I turned to her and asked where she was from. When she said "New York", I understood. Her manner was just a reflection of what was considered typical for where she was from, just like we Southerners are in the habit of saying hello to everyone we pass on the street. Understanding that helped me cross the bridge that had previously separated us, and from that point on we became friends.
This past November, I discovered we had something very special in common - the same birthday. We weren't the same age. Alma was about to turn 90 to my measly 65. But having the same birthday and month meant that we shared the astrology sign of Scorpio. When I mentioned that to Alma her eyes grew big as she asked me what that meant. I said "it means we are stubborn, opinionated, and slow to forgive, but loyal to a fault when we feel someone has earned that loyalty". She nodded her agreement emphatically while at the same time proclaiming "I'm not like that at all!" That's how it was with Alma.
From that point on our friendship deepened. We greeted each other with a smile and a hug before class, along with a teasing jab or two, and I was delighted to observe how she increasingly allowed her personality to be seen by other members of the class too. The true Alma was a fun, funny, and sweet person. From her fancy glued-on nails, to her pretend kicks at anyone who blocked her view in class, she was unique. And quite a character. She was also amazing to watch in class as she insisted on performing moves that were a challenge to those of us several years younger than her. But heaven forbid you suggest that maybe she should take things a little easier. That would only earn you a glare and a pointed remark.
Alma and I attended a concert together this past December. It featured one of our classmates performing with her family and friends and was attended by several other classmates as well. When I asked her if she wanted to go, and mentioned it would be Christmas music since I knew she was Jewish, she said "of course it will be" with her usual sly look. If her constant smile and tapping feet were any indication, I'd say she thoroughly enjoyed herself. That was Alma too: always open to a new experience.
The last time I saw Alma, she was sitting on a bench in front of the Y waiting for the van to take her home. I turned and gave her a wave and a smile and said "see you Alma", and she returned my wave and replied "goodbye Annell". Something tugged at my heart that day, which I was later able to recognize as a premonition. Still, I could not have predicted that Alma would be gone from this earth five days later. She was someone who started out a curmudgeonly stranger but turned out to be a special friend. It will be hard to stand next to her empty spot in class for a while, but I will comfort myself with remembering her spunky spirit and delightful uniqueness. I wish I had turned around on that last day and given her one more hug. I hope you know how much you meant to me, my fellow Scorpio. I sure do miss you.
iThis morning I realized that December had arrived and with it the call to write something for my monthly blog on the Kindness of Strangers. At first, I was stumped for a topic. But as I leafed through the November issue of Celebrate Hilton Head (also known as CH2) I was struck by an article that described a series of kind acts that took place in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew (October 2016).
I was one of those islanders who found themselves on Hilton Head as that beast of a storm hugged the coast of Florida enroute to the north, and I, like many others, was uncertain what to do. "Should I stay, or should I go." There seemed to be as many pluses as minuses for doing either. I was finally swayed in the direction of going by the loving (nagging) insistence of my husband who was safe and sound at our home in Nashville.
Where to go was my next dilemma. I had received an invitation from friends to come to their home in Aiken, S.C.. They had started texting me regularly since the evacuation order was announced with encouragement to head their way. One thing that discouraged me was the condition of the old Toyota that we kept at Hilton Head. I wasn't at all certain that it could make the three hour drive to Aiken since it had a tendency to refuse to start about every third time I tried. Luckily, when I finally had the presence of mind to phone AAA (again after the insistence of my husband) they came immediately and replaced the battery. So by 1 pm thursday I was on my way to Aiken.
Even before I left the island, I had received texts and calls from several friends in Forest Beach Villas making sure that I had a place to go and offering to share their arranged lodging if I did not. Other friends who opted to stay on the island checked in with me regularly (until the power went out) with reports on the condition of the island and our building.
Waiting to see what the storm would do was gut wrenching. But my Aiken friends were the epitome of gracious hosts. Their constant gestures of distraction in the form of tours of the town, visits with friends, delicious food, and wonderful wine, kept the waiting from being too painful. And a large screen television kept us informed.
I realize that most of the examples I've given so far did not really come from strangers. Nonetheless, these acts of kindness were performed by people I considered relatively "new" friends before that time. Maybe the truth is that when we are called into action by a shared twist of fate, it can quickly elevate a casual friendship into something deeper. That is certainly what I experienced.
The article in CH2 gave several examples of true acts of kindness by strangers: the owner of the Coligny Plaza Piggly Wiggly (David Martin) who opened his store even without power in order to enable folks to pick up necessities (offering credit when they didn't have cash to pay); a woman from Atlanta who donated $1000 in gift cards to be used at the Piggly Wiggly by people who lacked the funds to pay for food and supplies; countless local restaurant owners who emptied their freezers to cook meals for first responders; a man (Bryon Sewell) who grabbed a piece of plywood on the spur of the moment and painted a "welcome home" sign to be viewed by returning evacuees; neighbors who had elected to ride out the storm who ventured out in boats, bikes, and on foot to check on the homes of others; islanders and residents from the mainland who pitched in with chainsaws, trucks, and labor to help clear pathways and roads.
There are countless stories like these that I have heard or read since the hurricane passed, and they reminded me over and over of something I too often forget: there's a deep-seated desire in most of us to want to do good towards others. I guess the beauty of a natural disaster such as this one is that, if we allow it to, it can help bring out the best in us again. And if we act from that place of kindness, it can turn strangers into friends.
A few years ago, I was returning home from a particularly tiring business trip. I had chosen to fly coach class that leg of the flight in hopes of having three seats all to myself. I was successful in achieving my goal because there were very few passengers on this particular flight. However, I was close enough to the first class cabin to see and hear a rather unusual exchange take place between the passengers and one of the flight attendants.
Throughout the flight, the attendant carried on a comical and teasing banter with the half dozen or so passengers under her charge. Waves of laughter and delighted chuckles reached me as I lay stretched out in my somewhat-comfy three-seat bunk. I didn’t pay much attention to it at the time except to think how unusual it was to hear such frivolity on a late night flight.
As I exited the plane, I overheard that same flight attendant addressing each of the first class passengers by name. “So long Tom. Have a great night Jack. Hope to see you again Mary.” And as I passed by her unrecognized and unacknowledged, I felt regret at not being part of that small special circle of flyers who, on this particular flight, were treated to an extra dose of what we in the South call “hospitality”.
I believe that most of us take pleasure in providing acts of kindness towards others. When these acts are directed towards a friend or loved one they often go unnoticed, almost as if we “expect” to be the recipient of those gestures. But when they are bestowed upon us by a stranger - someone we have not seen before and are unlikely to encounter again - then those acts of kindness take on special significance.
This post is my thanks to all those kind strangers who have, either directly or indirectly, given a little extra warmth, removed a little frustration, or brought a lift to my spirits as they briefly passed through my life. It is also my hope that by sharing these examples it will move the reader to make a similar gesture towards a stranger the next time the opportunity presents itself.
For many years, my job required me to travel an average of six days out of every month, giving seminars to health professionals across the United States. Friends who knew of my frequent travel would sometimes remark on how much fun that would be, or how exciting to see so many different parts of our Country, to which I would reply that seeing the world from the confines of an airplane, rental car, taxi, or hotel room would hardly fit into either category. I did find it interesting, however, to observe the people who I was forced to share space with on those journeys, which occasionally prompted me to shoot out an email to friends and family about my observations.
On one of those occasions, a friend – Steve Clark – replied that he enjoyed reading my blogs. Blogs! I thought. How terrible. Of course, I had no idea what the term really meant. It just sounded to me like some cross between blech and bogged down, neither of which I found to be very flattering.
When my professional life made a shift (otherwise known as retirement) allowing me to pursue my real passions of creative writing and photography, my husband suggested that I should write a blog. There was that word again! But this time, instead of dismissing it based upon an unfounded bias, I turned to the trusty internet to educate me on what a blog actually is. What I learned is that the word blog refers to a discussion or informational site on the World Wide Web, consisting of discrete entries (or “posts”) that are usually the work of a single individual or small group. Blogs often provide commentary on a particular subject, but they may also serve as a personal, online diary, or as advertising for a particular individual or company.
With this new information, I could suddenly see the advantage of blogging for someone who wants to acquaint people with her written or photographic works. But creating a blog just to promote or sell something didn’t appeal to me. I decided to let the idea of blogging mull around in my brain for a few days. One morning, as I took my customary walk, I remembered that back in my frequent travel days I had started keeping a written commentary about what I called “The kindness of strangers.” It suddenly dawned on me that would make a great focus for a blog but I still wasn’t 100% sold on the idea. That same afternoon, I rushed out my front door in my sock feet to try and catch the garbage truck in time to deposit one more bag in my can. The young man who was just emptying my can in the truck smiled at me warmly, accepted my extra bag, and then said, “Would you like me to take your trash can to the back of your house for you?” Even if his offer hadn’t involved climbing up and down a fairly steep driveway in order to accomplish his task, I would have still been awestruck by his offer. So there it was: an example of “the kindness of strangers”, and what would become my introduction to my new blog.
In subsequent blog posts on this site, I intend to write about these frequent, but often overlooked, instances of human kindness. By writing about them I hope it will make me more mindful of their existence and in doing so, perhaps it will help me remember how much goodness remains in life. If reading about my encounters with the kindness of strangers (or friends) helps you to recognize your own, send me an email describing what you’ve seen or heard. Sharing the positives of life can help diminish the negatives that too often crowd out the good from our brains.