Ancestral energy lives in the stars above us, the stones beneath us. Their memory gathers in oceans, rivers and seas. It hums its silent wisdom within the body of every tree.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Human Kindness

One of my favorite things about the holiday season is witnessing moments of kindness between strangers. These events occur with more spontaneity at this time of year than any other. The most memorable and heart-warming moment for me happened during the holidays of 2001.
The day of the attacks on the twin towers in September happened the day before I started my training as a cashier at a local grocery store. I had moved to a new city that summer and spent weeks unable to find a job. I spent the day of the attacks glued to the television we hadn’t even had hooked up yet. When I went in for my training, everyone was in a state of shock and horror.
It wasn’t just the people working there. It was everyone coming in to shop as well. The city I live in has a large refugee and immigrant program and there are a lot of veiled Muslims who live here. They were here before the attacks and here after. But what I witnessed after 9/11, in the store, was horrifying to me.
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 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 the veiled women shopping, minding their own business, and accused them of killing people in New York City. Of hiding weapons beneath their hijabs and demanding to see what was underneath them. And much, much worse.
I am grateful that my grocery store allowed all of the cashiers to refuse service to those customers who would not cease in harassing the Muslim families. And I did. Often, at first. It is always heartbreaking to me how cruel people can be from their 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.
It was the shadow that fell over my joy of getting to know the community here, the humanity of it. And then the holidays happened. One day, in one shift, one man’s generosity renewed my faith in the goodness of people.
A Muslim man and his wife came through with healthy grains and vegetables and fresh meat and milk and eggs. Honestly, it was the healthiest display of food I ever saw anyone bring to my register in all of my time at the store. The couple were traditional and she was veiled. They had a small child with them and when their EBT card was denied (the system often went down, which had happened that day), they began to count out their cash and put things back, like the asparagus and the turkey and the box of cereal for their son, who unlike most children, did not cry in complaint. It was obvious they were struggling to decide what to keep.
An older man behind them asked me how much more they needed, while they sorted through their groceries. They only had $20 and I whispered apologetically that they needed another $80 to cover it, and that the system was down- that it wasn’t their fault. Customers were often impatient and the technology was no one’s fault. The Muslim woman started to apologize nervously to everyone in line as well. But the man smiled compassionately at them 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 said, “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.

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 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 to live.

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