As I stood in line at the grocery store, I tried not to make eye contact with anyone. I knew my eyes were red and puffy from crying, and I also knew that any little thing would set me off again. I had just got word the night before that one of my dearest friends had died and I was struck with grief. The otherwise merely annoying computerized self-checkout voice seemed exceedingly insensitive as she ordered me to ‘place the item in the bag.’ She may have said please, but I didn’t hear it. Self check out had been a bad choice. My mind was miles away, and even the mundane task of finding my rewards card and placing the item in the right bag was just too much to handle. But she just wouldn’t let up. ‘Please remove any unwanted items from the bagging area.’ Oh, shut up! I wanted to shout. Can’t you see I’m having a hard day? Cut me some slack and just let me get out of here. But then came a gentle human voice, “You doin’ ok, ma’am? Here, let me take care of that for you.” With a few clicks on the touch screen, the grocery store worker finished bagging my items and walked me to the door. He had done it. He had given me just enough understanding and compassion to make my eyes well up with tears again. But I was grateful. I’m sure he wondered what was wrong with me as I hurried on my way. Chances were good he’d never know.
And that got me thinking about how we really never know what any one person may be going through on any given day. We never really know how vulnerable a person may be feeling. We never really know what a person’s ‘moment before’ may have been. I brought that awareness with me as I struggled to get through the other parts of my daily routine. In the midst of sadness, how was I experiencing the way others treated me? What I discovered gave me pause for thought. I realized that ‘little touches’ seemed to touch me more.
The driver who signaled for me to take a parking space that he had been waiting for, which I had inadvertently started pulling into...
My daughter asking me if I would like a warm milk with honey...
The lady at the bakery who held the last loaf of my favorite bread for me...
The typically chatty mother who stood by me at school pick up and didn’t say a word...sensing my need for silence.
These small gestures felt like gifts. Gentle reminders of the kindness of the human spirit that holds us up when we are down. They didn’t take away my grief, of course, but they didn’t add anything to it either. I wondered how different a day it would have been had the man at the grocery store yelled at me to hurry up and move the line along? Or if the man at the parking space had beeped furiously at me and shouted choice words out the window? How much darker would the world have felt had the people who I interacted with on that day not chosen kindness?
Just a few days later, I went for a nature walk. The bitter cold of winter - a perfect match - for the bitter feelings I was experiencing as my initial sadness turned to anger and questions of why. I crossed paths with an elderly gentleman who I encounter on occasion at the park. He always walks his dog alone, and there seems to be a certain sadness about him. He isn’t a man of many words, and when our dogs stop to play for a moment, I am usually the one who offers a greeting or a word or two. I usually just say something little - maybe a comment about our dogs or a simple good morning. But on this particular day, it wasn’t a good morning, and I wasn’t up for small talk.
But then it occurred to me...
YOU NEVER KNOW
What if I am this man’s grocery store worker? His parking lot man? His bakery lady? What if my little touch brightens his day and restores his hope in kindness?
I managed to pull of half smile out of nowhere. Looks like we’re the only brave ones who came out in the cold today.
It was just about all I could muster up as we crossed paths, but it felt right. Symbolic, somehow. I was sure that we had both been called on, in ways that neither one would ever know about, to be brave throughout our lives. After all, aren’t we all?
The snow fell gently on us as we went our separate ways.
Have a good day, I called back without turning around.
You too, I heard him whisper under his breath. I pictured him smiling.
You never know. You just never know.