I have been aware in recent days of the kindness of strangers. Small things mostly, a bit of grocery-store advice, a scrap of conversation with someone I accidentally called on the phone. Smiles from people I don’t know. A gentle warning about ice from the mail carrier in another neighborhood.
These are not extraordinary events such as what happened in my community a couple of weeks ago. A construction crew on their way to a job site stopped at a house fire and rescued a woman trapped on the top floor before the firefighters arrived.
That incident brought to mind a rescue that literally saved my life many years ago, when I stepped off the curb on Broadway in New York City, not seeing the speeding bus that nearly hit me. (I was looking in the other direction.) I was young and on my way to work, feeling like somebody special in a blue skirt and sweater set and gray high-heeled shoes that were nearly a size too big. Impatient for the light to change, I stepped off the curb and looked down Broadway. Suddenly, hands under my arms lifted me out of my shoes back onto the sidewalk just as a bus roared past, knocking one of those gray high heels aside. Shaken I turned to thank whoever had saved me. I received a good scolding from wise New Yorkers about watching where I was going, but no one would tell me who lifted me out of the way.
The kindness of strangers…
We encounter this phenomenon everywhere if we look for it, concentrate on it when it happens. Often they are the most commonplace, like a conversation I had at the meat-and-produce market I like to frequent, where the quality is high and the prices are good. On this particular day, as I surveyed a display of dried peas and beans looking for lentils, I found myself next to a woman a bit older and taller than I. “I can’t find dried peas-for soup,” she said, half to me and half to herself. I heard the lyrical accent of her native Greece where, I would soon learn, she spent a month last summer.
Together we scanned shelves of every possible variety except dried peas. I picked up my package of lentils before I forgot what I had come for and kept looking on her behalf. “How are you going to cook those?” she asked me. I told her, and she corrected my recipe-not in a pushy “I’m a better cook than you” way; rather to be helpful.
I ran into her next at the meat counter where we discussed the chuck roasts. As we waited, she took out a picture of her young grandchildren. We talked about families; we both lost our mothers when we were in our twenties. She picked up her meat order and wished me a good day.
What was it about her or me that triggered a conversation that went beyond a smile or a nod, or the commiserating complaint of “it’s always so crowded here…”? Maybe she was just a friendly person.
Just the other day, I had intended to call a friend of mine, but was one number off. Apparently I was not listening carefully because after someone answered, I said, “Hi there, it’s Tricia.” I heard a confused, “Excuse me. Who is this?” As I apologized for misdialing, she laughed and explained she has a friend named Tricia, “but you did not sound like her, so I could not imagine what was going on.” We shared a laugh together.
A wrong number usually irritates one and embarrasses the other. Why did we have a conversation-granted for no more than thirty seconds-even though neither of us was whom the other one expected?
Why do people go out of their way at times to be kind, friendly, helpful? Why do they let someone cut into a long line of traffic when it will delay their own progress by another car length? Why does someone share a wave and a smile, instead of an angry hand gesture? Oh, don’t get me wrong; I’ve seen plenty of those, and I gave somebody a dirty look that should have curled her hair when she nearly ran me over in the crosswalk yesterday.
What is it that triggers the kindness of strangers?
I think we hunger for connection, for a chance to reach across the barriers and confines. When the other person’s voice or body language tells us it’s safe, we are eager to be helpful, to be liked by others. We don’t want to feel so alone in a world where we shred our garage to guard our identity.
Someone reached out to me-literally-about 23 years ago when I stepped off that curb in front of a bus. And someone else reached out to me with a recipe for lentils in the grocery store aisle just the other day. I am deeply grateful to both, for bridging the gap of our separateness to the experience of our common humanity.