Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Kindness of Strangers

I am not a cock-eyed optimist.   No one ever mistakes me for the perpetually cheery novel heroine, Pollyanna. My personality is best typified by my recent election to the post of Grand High Inquisitor in the local chapter of the Oscar Wilde Cynical Society.

And though I try to see the glass as half full, life experience has instructed me to equate skepticism with realism. Recently, I took a trip on board an Amtrak train with an upbeat friend.  As we settled into our Lilliputian sleeping car, which showed signs of former elegance, now faded and shabby, my friend looked around and envisioned the archaic railroad line someday being updated and transformed into a European style bullet train.  Whereas I, listening to the creaking of the car around us, and to the groans and sighs of the engine, concluded that The Little Engine that Could indeed could not, and never would again.

But my seasoned world-weariness and lack of trust in humanity has been sorely tested of late by some amazing acts of random kindness.

The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease are always shifting, and my condition varies greatly day by day.  Often, thanks to my helpful yoga practice, I am as graceful as Grace Kelly.

Then there are other days during which I relate to PD’s guru, the incredible Michael J. Fox, who says that he used to walk the walk and talk the talk.   Now, he confesses, he stumbles the stumble and mumbles the mumble.

On these days, I am ungainly at best. Walking across a room takes resolve, and stairs and doorways are especially daunting passages.  When I’m at home, I make these my writing days, grab some snacks and set up shop in my office.  But when I am traveling, I have no choice but to carry on as best as I can.  And the remarkable thing is that people not only notice my condition, but they try to help improve it.

Just this week, at the San Diego airport, during the hubbub of the 4th of July weekend, countless strangers stopped in the midst of their customary rush to hold doors open for me, extended arms to lead me to my destination, and asked if I needed help.
I was blown away by the amount of aid offered from every direction; it was life-affirming and hopeful, as if the Dalai Lama himself had sprinkled his words of wisdom over the heads of the kindly strangers.

“Compassion and kindness are the only things you really need,” says his Holiness.  And what is shocking to misanthropic me is that so many people are practicing his message.

This isn’t the first time I have been surprised by unexpected courtesy. Last summer when I was standing in a long line in a pharmacy in Avignon, France, an employee noticed my discomfort and quietly brought me a chair.  Later, in allegedly hard-hearted Paris, I encountered many kind hearts and coronets. When I stumbled into a chic bistro, without blinking an eye, the proprietor rushed over, took my arm and seated me at the closest table, removing the “Reserved” sign there and placing it on another table. He checked on me throughout the evening and, after I praised my dinner, even shared the recipes, which were his grandmother’s.

I had become so accustomed to the fast and roughshod ways of our over-complicated world, overflowing with people infected with what the Navajo call the “hurry sickness,” that I am startled by these disruptions to the norm, especially when they happen so often.   Despite my ingrained cautiousness, I find it impossible to ignore what Blanche DuBois dubbed the “kindness of strangers.”

Odd, this wave of benevolence.  But very nice.  Despite myself, it makes me hopeful. Keep it up, and I might have to resign my post at the Cynical Society.