Last April my 89-year-old mother fell on the sidewalk in front of a restaurant. Her left arm was “shattered,” her right knee was badly bruised and swelled to twice its size though, miraculously, it didn’t break, and she hit her head hard enough to suffer a concussion and an egg-sized swelling on her forehead that didn’t disappear completely for over three months. An off-duty EMT, who happened to be there for breakfast, called for an ambulance, got a blanket from his car, and laid down on the sidewalk next to Mom, covering and holding her to calm her and keep her from going into shock until help arrived. She still talks about how wonderful he was “to do that when he didn’t have to.” She always seems amazed that there are people who are kind “for no reason” because there were too many times in her own life that no one was to her.
When bad things happen, as they do when you least expect it, there are people who step forward and do what they can to help, giving everything and asking for nothing in return. Caring strangers like these renew one’s faith in mankind.
Unfortunately, we live in a world where bad news and people who do bad things take priority on the news because those things boost ratings and increase the advertisers’ bottom line. Like Don Henley’s “Dirty Laundry” suggests, most people want to see people shot, bleed, scream, and cry. Bad news sells. Bad news is more interesting than good news, and though feel-good stories are nice once in a while, the media cannot allow that to be overdone.
I’ve had two major car accidents in my life. The first killed my beloved grandmother when we slid on the ice beneath six inches of snow that fell in a snowstorm. My car slid sideways down a hill and an oncoming car hit us broadside. Although I was in and out of consciousness and it was obvious my grandmother had died at the scene, the other driver’s anger and the venomous words he spewed in my direction have never left me. He had been inconvenienced, and his narrowed vision, focused solely on himself, left no room for caring about either of us.
Over twenty years later I had a second accident, pulling out on a four-lane highway in front of a car as if I hadn’t seen it coming. And I hadn’t – that much I remember. So when something dark appeared in my peripheral vision, way too close for comfort, I couldn’t understand how it got there.
Waking up to whitish puffs like wisps of smoke and the smell of something burning in the air, I felt curiously detached. It struck a discordant note like the feeling you get looking at a Dali or a Picasso where nothing makes sense at first. Then I realized the air bags had deployed. When I came to again, a woman was leaning in the window, holding my hand, telling me it would be all right and asking whom she could call as an EMT examined my legs and my spine. Does this hurt? Can you feel this, move your feet? He can’t get the collar around my neck or get the backboard in place.
Without their calming voices I might be screaming but they stay with me through three attempts to separate me from the twisted metal that is crushing me. It becomes clear the EMT will have to lift me out like he’s carrying a child to bed. “I’m not going to lie to you. This is going to really hurt, and if you want to scream, it’s okay. People do it all the time.” Don’t scream becomes my mantra. The broken bones of my pelvis loosen, falling over themselves like they’re being played in a game of pick-up-sticks when I hear Jeff’s voice for the first time. “I’m right here, Mom.” His hand closes over mine, and I’m no longer alone.
But I, like my mother, was never alone. Strangers helped us through this, held our hands, stayed with us, giving of themselves and from their hearts, expecting nothing at all in return. Not even the glory of a two-minute segment on the nightly news.
A multitude of kindnesses are ours to give if we first acknowledge the presence of others and squelch the urge to say “I don’t have time for this,” or “It’s got nothing to do with me.” If we look people in the eye instead of throwing perfunctory words at them while our own eyes are wandering around or focused on something else, good things will follow.
When something big happens, like a Katrina, a tornado, an earthquake, an Oklahoma or World Trade Center bombing, or a school shooting – tragic events of tremendous scope and magnitude – we bear witness to many acts of kindness, both large and small, that take center stage alongside the horrific events that spawned them.
What we don’t usually witness are the smaller ways people make a difference. The daily kindnesses and acts of selflessness that occur all around us and go unnoticed because they are so small. But sometimes the littlest things make the biggest difference. Like being generous “when we don’t have to.” We forget that people, probably most people, are kind, thoughtful, and caring every day of the year, thankful they can make a positive difference of seeming insignificance in a million different ways with no expectation of praise or reward.
Instead of paying so much attention to others’ dirty laundry, let’s do something about our own. Rather than gawking, gossiping, or looking the other way, smile and say hello to a stranger. It won’t hurt us or cost anything, and might be the nicest thing to happen to that stranger in a long time.