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STORIES OF KINDNESS FROM THE ROAD AND ABROAD
The smallest act of kindness is worth more than the grandest intention.
A Hundred-Dollar Bill
I arrived at the airport in Pullman, Washington, excited about my approaching interview for admission to the University of Washington's veterinary school. I went directly to the rental car agency to pick up my car, only to find, to my disbelief and horror, that my credit card had been declined and I had no other means of payment.
I ran to the pay phone and called my roommate back in California. I was trying to explain what had happened in between hysterical sobs, when a man walked up to me, tapped me on the shoulder, handed me a one hundred dollar bill, and walked away. Thanks to the generous compassion of a total stranger I made the interview on time and was accepted into the veterinary school.
* * *
A Missed Bus
One year when I was away at school I had gone to the Greyhound bus depot to catch a bus home for Christmas break. I looked all over for the right bus, but none of the buses lined up at the terminal had my destination on them. As I was standing there trying to figure out where my bus was, one pulled out and the driver changed the sign as he was leaving—to exactly where I wanted to go. I stood there watching my bus disappear down the highway; I must have been visibly upset because a woman came over, took my arm, and led me to the street. She hailed a taxicab, gave the driver a five-dollar bill, and told him to get me over to the ferry dock quickly, because the bus made a stop there before heading out onto the highway. She wished me a Merry Christmas, and all I could do was smile.
No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.
My husband and I were traveling in Italy with two small babies and an au pair. We would trade sightseeing time with the au pair so we could all visit the requisite churches and museums. But on this day we took the babies along, since we only had one day to go to Assisi and all of us urgently wanted to see it. The morning was wonderful—feeling like happy pilgrims, we read each other stories of St. Francis while the babies cooed and gurgled as we drove up the winding streets.
But by the end of a very hot day traipsing up and down hills in the ninety-degree Italian sun, the kids were crying nonstop. One was throwing up; the other had diarrhea. We were all irritable and exhausted, and we had a three-hour trip ahead of us to get back to Florence, where we were staying. Somewhere on the plains of Perugia we stopped at a little trattoria to have dinner.
Embarrassed at our bedraggled state and our smelly, noisy children, we sheepishly tried to sneak into the dining room, hoping we could silence the children long enough to order before they threw us out. The proprietor took one look at us, muttered "You wait-a here," and went back to the kitchen. We thought perhaps we should leave right then, but before we could decide what to do, he reappeared with his wife and teenage daughter. Crossing the dining room beaming, the two women threw out their arms, cried, "Ah, bambini!" and took the children from our arms, motioning us to sit at a quiet corner table. For the duration of a long and hospitable dinner, they walked the babies back and forth in the back of the dining room, cooing, laughing, and singing them to sleep in gentle, musical Italian. The proprietor even insisted we stay and have an extra glass of wine after the babies were asleep! Any parent who has reached the end of his or her rope with an infant will agree that God had indeed sent us angels that day.
If you want happiness for an hour—take a nap. If you want happiness for a day—go fishing. If you want happiness for a month—get married. If you want happiness for a year—inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime—help someone else.
Two Flat Tires
I used to make an eighty-mile drive to visit my parents, and there's a fortymile stretch of the road that's in the middle of nowhere. One day as I was driving alone along this barren patch, I saw a family on the side of the road with a flat tire. Normally I do not stop in such situations, but for some reason I felt the need to do so that day. The family was very relieved when I volunteered to drive them to a gas station about ten miles down the road to get help. I left them at the station because the attendant said he would take them back to their car and drove on my way. About twelve miles later, I had a blowout. Since I couldn't change the tire myself, I was stranded and not sure what to do. But in only about ten minutes a car came along and pulled over to offer help. It was the same family I had stopped for earlier that day!
We realize that what we are accomplishing is a drop in the ocean. But if this drop were not in the ocean, it would be missed.
* * *
I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.
The Carpet Sellers of Kathmandu
After a trek to Mount Everest, I found myself in a rug shop in Kathmandu considering buying a carpet.
I had entered to big smiles and choruses of "Welcome, my sister!" from the proprietors, a pair of brothers from Kashmir named Qayoom and Yousef. After introductions and handshaking all around, I was offered a seat and something to drink. At first I declined, but Qayoom insisted, so I asked for black tea. He said something in a language I couldn't recognize to an old man with half-closed eyes who stepped outside to fetch our drinks.
Qayoom lived with Yousef's family in four rented rooms in a quiet section of town. The old man lived with them. They had found him drunk and living on the streets, and, as good Muslims, they felt it was their duty to help. So they offered him a job on the condition that he quit or at least cut back. The old man took a new name, Surkedai, which translates to "Happy Man." He used to be "one hundred percent bad" when it came to alcohol, said Yousef. Now he is "eighty percent good and only twenty percent bad." In return Surkedai fetches drinks for customers, dusts the shelves of small knickknacks in the front room of the shop, walks the twenty minutes back to the house to bring lunch each day, and rerolls the carpets that customers aren't interested in.
This old man, whose wife and family abandoned him to the gutter because of his drinking problem, now has a place to sleep, a small wage, and people who care about him.
I was wandering aimlessly through the aisles of the Sears automotive department in a big, impersonal East Coast city. I felt terribly alone, far from home, and so totally preoccupied with my own misery and loneliness that I don't think I really saw anything on the shelves. After awhile I became aware of a small child about three or four years old, walking and crying at my side. I don't know how long she had been keeping me company, but I sensed that somehow she had gravitated toward me as someone who would help her. I knelt beside her and asked if she was lost; with tears streaming from her eyes, she just nodded. I held out my hand and told her not to worry, that we would find her parents. She put her hand in mine and I led her up to the counter, where two wonderful salesladies immediately enveloped her and promised to find her parents.
As I was leaving the store I heard the announcement over the paging system and had no doubt that she would soon be reunited with her parents. I also realized that all my own doom and gloom had disappeared. I thought to myself that just as that little girl had renewed my spirit, perhaps the small acts of strangers willing to help would allow this child to grow up with a little less fear and a more compassionate outlook on the world.
The ocean, king of mountains, and the mighty continents Are not heavy burdens to bear when compared To the burden of not repaying the world's kindness.
* * *
It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.
—Ursula K. Le Guin
In a Strange Town
On my first trip to the States, I arrived in New York as a student and went down to the bus station to buy a ticket. I had my money in one hand and my handbag in the other—it didn't have anything valuable but my address book in it. Going up to the counter to pay, I put my bag down for a second and when I looked again, it was gone. I couldn't believe it. I started to panic because I realized that without my address book I didn't know how to get in contact with my brother, who I was going to stay with.
The friend who was with me suggested we go to the police. With what I knew about New York's reputation I told her that would be a waste of time. But we went anyway and met two policemen who seemed to be straight out of a television show. They couldn't have been nicer. They said, "Such a terrible thing to happen to you on your first trip to America." They took down the details and then started asking me questions: Where was I going? Did I know how to get in touch with my brother? Of course I didn't, because my address book was gone. Then one policeman said, "Do you know anybody who knows him?" And I remembered I knew his in-laws. So they allowed me to make a long-distance phone call to the in-laws to get my brother's address and phone number. And when I got off the phone they said I should go ahead and call my brother right then and there so I wouldn't be anxious. Then they walked us back to the bus stop where we could find our way back to our hotel.
The Taxi Driver
New York City is a great place to find kindness because it is always such a surprise. I was going to a trade show and my plane was delayed, so by the time I got to my hotel everyone I was supposed to meet had already left for the show. The concierge told me that if I walked around the block I could catch a shuttle. So I walked to the bus stop, but the last shuttle had already gone. Then a young man standing on the sidewalk said, "The convention center isn't very far, it's only four blocks." So I started walking. But it wasn't only four blocks, and I walked and walked.
It started getting dark, I was already an hour late for my meeting, and I found myself in the warehouse district— definitely not the kind of place you want to be in when you're all by yourself in New York. Eventually I saw a little light in the distance and started walking toward it. As I walked, a taxi drove past, then backed up and asked me where I was going. I told him and he said, "Get in. I'll take you there." By then I was really relieved, particularly when it turned out to be quite far to the convention center. To make the moment even sweeter, when the driver dropped me off—safely back among my friends—he wouldn't take any money from me.
In Need of a Guide
I had been traveling in Asia for three months and was in Hong Kong to meet up with my boyfriend who was flying in for a week. Somehow his pending arrival had brought up all the homesickness that had stayed buried during the day-to-day difficulties and joys of traveling. I had boarded a bus that I thought was going to the airport, but the bus flew past the airport without stopping and I burst into tears. I was eager to meet my boyfriend's flight but instead I was on a bus to God knows where. I kept calling out "airport, airport," but the bus driver spoke no English.
A Chinese woman who spoke some English told me to get off at the next stop, which was in the middle of an expressway. The woman exited and headed off in the opposite direction, after indicating that I was to follow a second woman who was gesturing wildly and speaking Chinese. Then she too turned off in a different direction after aiming me down still another street. After a few steps I noticed an old man who had been there all along. Quietly and patiently, looking back every so often to make sure I didn't get lost, he guided me through the crowded and confusing streets of Kowloon to the airport. To this day I think gratefully of my shy and silent guide and of course his more vocal friends.
Take My Seat
I was standing in line getting ready to board a plane when this guy comes rushing up to the ticket counter. He had obviously sprinted through the terminal and was furious when the woman at the counter told him his reservation had been cleared and his seat given away. She offered to get him a confirmed seat on the next flight, which unfortunately was not leaving for nearly five hours, but he would have none of it. He started screaming about how important it was that he get to Chicago by seven, how irresponsible the airline was when, after all, he had a confirmed ticket, how he wanted to see the supervisor, and on and on and on.
Finally he stopped his tirade and, in a very quiet voice, said, "I'm really sorry. I'm just completely stressed out and I can't believe I am going to miss this meeting." Right then an old man who was standing in front of me in the boarding line watching this whole thing stepped up to the counter and said, "Here, take my seat. I'm retired and I'm in no real hurry to get anywhere." The guy was so happy and so humbled at the same time that it looked like he was going to cry. Then he took the ticket and got on the plane.
Life's most persistent and urgent question is, What are you doing for others?
—Martin Luther King, Jr.
Let a good person do good deeds with the same zeal that an evil person does bad ones.
We were on vacation in Florida, with four kids all under the age of ten. The weather had been very hot and humid so this particular day we decided to pack a cooler full of sandwiches and soft drinks and drive out along the coast until we found a nice beach. It was sort of an adventure since we really didn't know where we were going, but after a while we found a beautiful beach that was pretty isolated. We parked and unloaded ourselves onto the sand. It was really great, except after a few hours it got too hot for the kids and they were starting to whine and complain. So we decided to head back to the air-conditioned hotel.
When we got back to the car we discovered the keys, dangling from the ignition with all the windows rolled up and all the doors locked. In frustration I screamed, "Who locked the doors?" to which Beth, my five year old, responded, "You tell us always to lock the doors." I felt totally defeated. At first I was just going to smash the window in, but after Beth's evenhanded comment, I thought that would be a bit too violent. So I walked up the road about a half-mile to a house along the beach. I knocked on the door, and an elderly couple invited me in. They let me use their telephone to call roadside service, then packed me into their car and drove back to pick up the rest of my family. They brought us all back to their home, and within a few minutes the kids were swimming in their pool while my wife and I sat on an air-conditioned veranda sipping a cool drink and swapping vacation stories. Roadside service came and went, and three hours later we headed back to our hotel, refreshed and glowing from the surprising and wonderful experience.
Past the seeker as he prayed, came the crippled and the beggar and the beaten. And seeing them, the holy one went down into deep prayer and cried, "Great God, how is it that a loving creator can see such things and yet do nothing about them?"
And out of the long silence, God said, "I did do something. I made you."
—Sufi teaching story
An adventurous group of Australians traveled to Nepal to attempt to climb Mt. Everest. At the 10,000-foot level, one member of the group became very sick with chills, fever, nausea, and vomiting. His "friends" wrapped him up in his sleeping bag and continued their climb. Two weeks later, he woke up in a Sherpa village. They had found him on the mountainside, where he had slipped into a coma, and had brought him to their village to nurse him back to health.
It took many months for the climber to fully regain his health. Finally, six months after being abandoned on the mountainside, he returned to the Australian embassy in Kathmandu to find that his passport had been turned in by his climbing partners with the explanation that he had died on the slopes of Mt. Everest.
The man who had been so lovingly nursed back to health was—in his life in Australia—a trained nurse. He had his worldly possessions shipped from Australia to Nepal, and he returned to the Sherpas to repay their kindness by living, working, and caring for his new "chosen people."
A Trip to the Post Office
Kindness is not always a straight line. I was traveling in Central America with a friend, and we were looking for a post office. We were standing on the corner and did not know what the Spanish word for "post office" was. Some kind soul could see we were confused and came up to us. We tried to explain what we were looking for, and he said, "Oh yea, yea," and led us, with our backpacks on in the middle of the heat of the day, down all these little crooked streets. It seemed like we walked for miles. Finally, he pointed us toward a building without any name on it. But when we went in, it turned out not to be the post office. When we came out and were again standing around looking lost, someone else came up and asked if she could help—she knew where the post office was. Again we headed off as she guided us to another building which also had no sign and which also turned out not to be the post office.
Excerpted from Random Acts of Kindness Then & Now by Editors of Conari Press. Copyright © 2013 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Introduction by M. J. Ryan
Roadside Angels Stories of Kindness from the Road and Abroad
When You Least Expect It Surprising Acts of Kindness
Blessings Multiplied One Kind Act Leads to Another
Kindness After Loss Grace from Family and Friends
Sharing the Wealth A Bounty for One and All
It's the Little Things Small Acts That Make a Big Impression
Kindness Stories from Superstorm Sandy When Neighbors and Strangers Jump
in to Help
Afterword by Addie Johnson
Posted July 12, 2013