I don’t know about you, but it’s so easy to get bogged down emotionally by all the sadness around me. I’m inundated daily by grief on all sides. The homeless people down the street looking for warmth now that the weather is turning cold. Hungry kids. Major war and disaster, the scale of which is so devastating, countries around the world are absorbing refugees on a scale we haven’t seen since World War II.
It doesn’t take much to see hard things everywhere you turn. And I’ve only mentioned some of the big stuff. This isn’t even the small heartbreak you don’t notice happening inside people’s hearts in every corner of your life. It’s really easy to feel overwhelmed by it all. To feel discouraged and heartsick, like there’s nothing good left out there.
I’ve felt that way a lot in my life. I get it. It’s real and it can be devastating. But what I want you to think about is this: there is beauty and kindness happening everywhere. There are people going out of their way to help on a huge scale. There are people dedicating their entire lives to the betterment of mankind. And on a smaller scale, there are a good people the world over making small choices all day long to make people’s lives better. The person who lets you merge in a traffic jam. The person who smiles at you at the bank, at the coffee shop, at the grocery store. The person in your office who asks how you are and actually takes time to listen to your answer. These aren’t monumental acts of generosity, but at the same time, they’re revolutionary.
I’d argue, in fact, that the revolution of small acts of kindness holds entire communities together, especially in difficult times.
We all know how this works. A small kindness can change the entire course of a day, which can in turn, change the course of a life. I promise it’s happening all around you, all the time.
Let me tell you about a small thing that happened to me last week, because I can’t stop thinking about it. If you follow me on Instagram (petit_elefant) you’ll know that last week I posted a picture about the kindness of a stranger.
On a regular, busy weekday last week I took my daughter to a doctor’s appointment. We shuffle all around town after school. Between swim team practices, doctor’s appointments, and errands, my afternoons are on a tight leash.
The appointment was fine, until we got to the parking lot when it was finished. I dug around in my purse for the car keys, but couldn’t find them anywhere. We both checked every pocket we had, and I dumped my purse upside down to see if the keys were stuck to something, inside of something, but nothing. No keys. We both cupped our hands to look in the car windows where we saw the keys locked safely inside, sitting on the back seat. Awesome.
It wasn’t a big deal. Except it was time to pick my son up from swim, and we were both coatless and cold, and it was getting dark. Okay, fine. I still had my purse and 50% of my cell phone battery. No big deal. I started Googling ways to break into our car, and if the local police department would help us unlock it. Just figuring out options. None of this was stressful in and of itself, it was just an inconvenience. At this point, my girl decided to try her luck at breaking in. She unwound the metal from her binder, and used a door wedge from the doctor’s office to try and get the job done herself. No luck.
I wasn’t dressed for cold weather, thinking I’d just be in the car and the doctor’s office, and I was genuinely cold, so I went back into the office building to wait in the lobby while I sorted the situation out. While I was sitting there, one-by-one, the businesses started to turn off their lights and lock their doors as employees left the building. And little by little, my anxiety started to rise.
Eventually, a construction worker who was doing after-hours renovations on the building sought us out to see if there was a way to help. He saw us trying to break into our car and asked what he could do. I couldn’t think of anything, but he decided to go look in the building for a wire coat hanger so we could unlock the car door and retrieve the keys ourselves. After he’d been gone awhile, my husband and I finally connected, and we decided to abandon the car, drive home together, and come back for it later that night. We didn’t have time to wait for the construction worker to come back, or even if he would.
Between the time we realized we were locked out of our car to the time my husband picked us up, only an hour had passed. It wasn’t a long period of time and it wasn’t winter-cold, but I was genuinely rattled. I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t that big of a deal. Nothing scary happened. No one was hurt. But it stayed with me, and I wasn’t sure why. I had been so grateful for the kindness of a stranger, even though nothing came of it.
Later that night my husband and daughter drove back to the parking lot, several cities away, to retrieve the car. And on the windshield was a wire coat hanger, waiting for our return.
What I didn’t realize until later that night, safely in my own warm home, tucked in bed with a full belly, was that the reason I was so anxious about being locked out of my car, in a city far from home, in the cold and dark was because it reminded me of being scared and abandoned as a little kid. There were plenty of times as a child where I was forgotten somewhere, waiting for a ride. The scariest part of those memories was the vulnerability that came with being alone with no grown-ups or friends, outside somewhere, in the dark and cold with nothing to eat. Often outside buildings as they were closing down for the night. It happened a lot.
There was no way for that kind construction worker to know all of that when he offered his kindness that night. There was no way for him to know how afraid I’d been, how nervous my heart was getting when he put his own work aside to go looking for a way to help. But he did it anyway.
The next day, I was back in the same city, dropping my son off at swim practice. I was really cold, so I went to a fast food restaurant to buy a hot chocolate. I had a credit card to pay for it, but I looked in my wallet and saw a $20 bill. I never use cash, but I had the thought that maybe I should break the $20 so I’d have smaller change, just in case I needed it.
Without realizing why, I ended up back in the doctor’s office parking lot. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for until I saw construction worker’s truck parked exactly where it had been the night before. I wanted to repay his kindness but wasn’t sure how, until I remembered I had a brand new $5 bill in my wallet. Using the back side of the receipt from the hot chocolate, I wrote a note and wrapped it around the money before tucking it into the slightly open window of his car. Hopefully the note and money helped him back in some small way.
I tell you this story because on the surface, this was a small kindness from a stranger. It wasn’t a large-scale solution to a world full of problems. But that small kindness went a very long way toward alleviating something scary I didn’t even know was happening inside of me. And to me, that is a very big deal.
So the next time you’re feeling discouraged, look around for all the ways people are holding each other up in this heartbreaking world. And if you don’t see anything, maybe today is your turn to do the holding.