One of my favorite things about the holiday season is witnessing moments of kindness between strangers as these events occur with more spontaneity at this time of year. Allow me a moment to plug the notion that we can carry Christmas and Solstice with us through the whole year. Human kindness always moves me and makes me misty. The most memorable and heart-warming moment I remember happened during the holidays of 2001.
The day of the attacks on the twin towers happened the September day before I was to start training as a cashier at a local grocery store. We had recently moved to a new city and spent the day of the attacks glued to the television we hadn’t even had hooked before we heard the news. When I clocked in the next morning for training, everyone was in a state of horror and shock.
I hadn’t been there long enough to know any of the regular customers yet, but what I saw were couples and mothers shopping to feed their families, day in and day out. It was their only agenda. They all had different colors of skin and different styles of dress and each of these was widely varied. After the attacks, I saw the majority of my community respond fearfully to the women in their abayas and hijabs.
In their fear they were not kind, and they felt free to make horrid comments to the women shopping that I cannot even write out for you. They literally walked up to unveiled Muslim women shopping, minding their own business, and accused them of killing people in New York City. Of hiding weapons beneath their abayas and demanding to see what was hiding underneath them. And much, much worse. In front of their children.
And what will those children grow up thinking about their place in the world?
I am grateful that my grocery store allowed the cashiers to refuse service to those customers who would not cease in harassing the Muslim families. And I did. Often, at first. I have always believed in kindness. It is always heartbreaking to me how cruel people can be from a place of fear.
What is it that makes us lash out like wounded animals at each other? How does hurting other people make us feel better? I understand being afraid. I understand having fear. We are each allowed to feel the emotions we feel. But we are not allowed to inflict them on others. We are not allowed to wield them like weapons against other people. We are all animals. That is true. But it is supposed to be our human compassion and brains that lift us above our animal nature.
Every day, those interactions were the shadow that fell over my joy of getting to know the community here and its humanity. I saw too much ugly at first- which may have been true wherever I found myself then. One day, on a holiday shift, one man’s generosity renewed my faith in the goodness of people. One small act of kindness was enough to tip the scales.
A Muslim man and his wife came through with their young son, buying healthy grains and vegetables and fresh meat and milk and eggs. It was the healthiest display of food I ever saw anyone bring down my register in all of my time at the store. She wore an abaya and hijab but the old couple before them paid quickly and muttered about letting burkas in the store.
The electronic benefits line was down, as it often was back then, and their EBT card was denied. They began to count out their cash and put things big extras back, like the asparagus and the turkey. When they took back the only other extra, the box of cereal for their son, he did not cry in complaint. That moment stayed with me. It was obvious they were struggling to decide what else to take away.
An older man behind them asked me how much more they needed, while they sorted through their groceries. They only had twenty dollars and I whispered apologetically to him that they needed another eighty to cover everything, and that our system was down- that it wasn’t their fault. I was so used to customers being impatient and wanted him to understand the technology glitch was no one’s fault.
The Muslim woman started to apologize nervously to everyone in line around the same moment. But the man behind them smiled compassionately and handed me a hundred dollars. All he was buying for himself was bread, lunch meat and milk.
At first the couple would not take it, but he insisted. I will never forget what he said. “You need help, and I am in a place to give it to you. I would like to think that when I need help, someone will be in a place to give it to me.” The family thanked him profusely and gratefully. You could see the surprise wash over them. As they were leaving, the husband turned around and told the man that he would never forget his kindness. And the man shrugged it off, “Just repay the favor some day.”
When they left, the man would not hear me say anything about it, waving my gratitude and tears away. He said it wasn’t a big deal. “It was to them,” I assured him. And it was to me. I have never forgotten it either. I have paid it forward innumerably.
Sometimes kindness comes in the form of a simple smile. Making eye contact with your cashier during your holiday shopping. Taking a moment to saying thank you to all of your cashiers, to the waitress when she brings you a new drink, to anyone working in service for you. There are a lot of people in the world and we don’t know everyone. But at some point in our lives, even our closest friends were strangers to us. And every stranger is someone’s son, daughter, mother, father, friend. We have choices every day in what face we show to the world. Spread compassion and kindness throughout your days. It is the simplest and most beautiful language we can share and it is a language that will shape the world around us into a brighter place.
[Updated from “Human Kindness” published December 4, 2013.]